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State Education Chief Says He’ll Stick with Current Staff Configuration

Hespe disputes state auditor’s assertion that county office understaffing violates law

Hespe
Credit: Amanda Brown
State Education Commissioner David Hespe

It’s a time-honored practice in New Jersey for new education commissioners to bring in their own people once they’re on the job.

But acting Education Commissioner David Hespe is sticking with the current make-up of the state Department of Education – albeit, perhaps with some tweaking.

Hespe said yesterday that the organizational structure set up by former commissioner Chris Cerf reflects what he called the “theory of action” for the department. While he may make some slight adjustments, he’s not envisioning wholesale change as he moves into the next school year.

The topic arose in the wake of a report from the Office of the State Auditor that said the Christie administration is violating state law in its understaffing of the department’s county offices.

The report, released last week, said that the administration had failed to appoint executive county superintendents for each of the 21 counties, as dictated by statute. Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 summarily discontinued one-third of the positions and shifted to a system in which some county superintendents serve more than one county.

Hespe yesterday disputed the state auditor’s interpretation that the law requires having one superintendent for each county. Nonetheless, he acknowledged it has been an ongoing point of contention with the Legislature, which the state auditor serves.

“I read it that we need a suitable person named for every county, and that is what we are doing,” he said. “It doesn’t say that can’t have more than one county per person. But it is something we will review, and certainly have a conversation with (the state auditor) about.”

The fact that Hespe is sticking with Cerf’s organizational chart is hardly a surprise, as he served as chief of staff during Cerf’s first year as commissioner. What’s more, some changes made as part of Cerf’s reorganization are required under the state’s waiver from the federal No Child Left behind Act, Hespe noted.

Still, Hespe said coordination of the state’s field services and its county functions is a work in progress. He said a big issue is how the state can mesh the county offices with the new Regional Achievement Centers set up by Cerf to serve individual schools that are found to be under-performing. The RACs have themselves been a source of contention in some locales, and staffing of them has ebbed and flowed.

But Hespe said they are getting close to having a full complement of staff, adding that it’s a matter of better coordinating their work with the county-level administrative offices and with state oversight – which already includes state-appointed superintendents in Camden, Newark and Paterson and fiscal monitors in another half-dozen districts.

“There needs to be a synergy of all three (functions),” Hespe said yesterday.

There is hardly consensus in Trenton about how the state should manage its county offices. Long-standing proposals call for more coordination and even consolidation of the functions of those offices across the state.

State Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) keeps pressing a bill to eliminate the county superintendent position altogether and create three regional offices: north, central and south. First introduced in 2010, the bill has yet to get through committee.

One important job Hespe will be filling soon is his department’s chief academic officer, an assistant commissioner position in charge of academic support for school districts. The post has been held by Tracey Severns, who is leaving at the end of the month to return to the Mount Olive school district, where she will serve as director of student performance.

A former Mount Olive principal, Severns was on a two-year loan from the Mount Olive district.. She became the state’s most visible cheerleader for adoption of the new Common Core State Standards.

Hespe said yesterday that that his staff expects to continue interviewing candidates to succeed Severns through the summer, with a replacement in place by September. He said he did not envision making any other major changes in the department.

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