When Gov. Chris Christie last year called out Asbury Park schools as the poster child of ineffectiveness and waste, district superintendent Lamont Repollet didn’t bite.
“Chris Christie was literally wiping the floor with his students, and Lamont stayed so grounded,” recalled Rocco Tomazic, the Freehold Borough superintendent who knows Repollet well from Monmouth County school circles.
“He wouldn’t take the bait.” Tomazic continued. “He’s not shy about anything, but he just wanted to stay positive.”
Repollet surely will need that fortitude and calm when he becomes the state’s next education commissioner during what are going to be trying circumstances for New Jersey’s schools.
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy on Friday announced he would nominate the 47-year-old Repollet for the post, citing his work in “turning around” Asbury Park and his professed vision for the state’s schools.
"If we are to move ahead, we need strong leadership at the Department of Education with the real-world experience, both in and out of the classroom, to ignite an education revolution," Murphy said in making the announcement.
If confirmed by the state Senate, Repollet will almost immediately face high expectations brought by Murphy’s many campaign promises around education.
First and foremost will be school funding, where Murphy has pledged to fully fund the state’s finance formula to the tune of an extra $1 billion to $2 billion a year.
How Murphy will do that and how long will it take is still uncertain, with his budget address later this winter providing the first clues.
Repollet will come in from a district that had been among the state’s most expensive in spending over $30,000 per student, as Christie frequently pointed out.
And while its struggles largely predated Repollet, it has hardly been seen as a stable one, as it remains under a state fiscal monitor that has final say on the budget and other financial decisions.
In his new job, Repollet won’t have much time to get up to speed in overseeing the distribution of more than $9 billion in state aid. He will not just have Murphy’s first budget to manage, but also a fresh legal challenge from a group of 10 districts that are among the most under-funded in the state.
The same day Murphy named his nomination, the districts announced their filing to the commissioner that claimed the state had violated its constitution by not following its funding formula and equitably distributing aid to its schools.
G. Kennedy Greene, the superintendent of Newton schools, has been a leader in the challenge and said the timing was just coincidence. He said it actually was aimed more at Christie’s administration, but conceded it will now rest on Murphy’s.
“I emailed Lamont to congratulate him on his nomination,” Greene said this weekend. “And I told there may be something on his desk when he gets there.”
Greene said he is encouraged by Murphy’s promises to fund the formula, but felt it incumbent to file the challenge nonetheless.
“We have heard a lot of political promises over the years from both sides,” he said.
“The new governor has been consistent in making this a priority, and we take him at his word,” Greene added. “And it would terrific if it happens.”
Maybe less immediate for Repollet but no less complex will be a host of other education policy promises that Murphy has made. Among them is building up vocational education, expanding preschool, and pulling back on the time and stakes involved in the state’s PARCC test.
Repollet on Friday provided few details of his own views in those areas, but since taking the job in Asbury in 2014, he has indeed been hailed for providing new hope in its schools.
Often cited is the marked increase in Asbury Park High School’s graduation rate under his tenure, from 49 to 71 percent. There is also a new coordinated program with Brookdale County College, giving Asbury students a head start on college credits.
He has put a lot of attention toward serving students’ social and emotional needs, and credited some innovative practices in addressing his most troubled students. One involves counselors and other support students tracking particular students from the moment they walk in the door each morning.
Yet with nearly each positive sign is also a worrisome one. Test scores at that high school have continued to lag woefully below the state’s averages at just 15 percent passing the language arts. The elementary and middle school numbers aren’t much better.
In a high-poverty district like Asbury, there are many factors contributing to that, of course — some inside the schools, others outside. And Repollet didn’t shy from citing the challenges he faces when announced on Friday.
"I view my assignment as commissioner very much as I viewed my assignment in Asbury Park," he said. "A culture of high expectations, eliminating the challenges, carving new paths for progress, and giving children hope in opportunity."
Tomazic, the Freehold superintendent, said the positive message is more than just talk.
“Lamont is not someone who gets whipped up,” he said. “Even if he gets beat down, he’ll wake up the next morning and say let’s go forward.”