New Jersey’s Deputy Education Commissioner Announces Her Departure

John Mooney | October 7, 2010 | Education
At 75, Willa Spicer isn’t retiring, and promises to stay close to public education issues

Credit: NJS
Acting commissioner Rochelle Hedricks, right, and soon-to-be-former deputy commissioner Willa Spicer.
The state education official central to New Jersey’s policy in the classroom for the last several years – and some of its high-profile dramas of the last several months – said yesterday she is leaving the department.

At a time the state agency is already in flux, Willa Spicer said she would be leaving her current post as deputy education commissioner in mid-November. She said she was not sure what she would do next, but even at age 75, she had no plans of retiring altogether and would stay close to issues of public education in the state.

“It’s just time to move on,” Spicer said yesterday. “But I’ll be somewhere, no question. I don’t think I’ll stay without a job for long.”

Behind the Scenes

Spicer has been a behind-the-scenes fixture at the department, leading many of its initiatives on curriculum and instruction since her appointment in 2007 as deputy to former commissioner Lucille Davy. Before that, she was the long-time assistant superintendent in South Brunswick schools.

Spicer was kept on by the Christie administration, spearheading the state’s bids for federal Race to the Top funding that sent New Jersey’s education establishment into tumult.

Spicer was point person in the talks to enlist the state’s teachers union into the federal proposal, an alliance rejected by Christie at the last minute this spring. She also was the lead on the application that just missed the cut — and $400 million — on a minor error.

That error and a dispute over who said what led Christie to fire Bret Schundler as his education commissioner last month, and the controversy continues to dog state politics. Senate Democrats will hold a legislative hearing today on what happened in the federal application and its aftermath, even subpoenaing Schundler to testify. Spicer said she may testify as well, although she was not subpoenaed.

No Comment

Yesterday, the usually blunt-talking Spicer said she did not want to comment further on the dramas of the last few months, saying she would rather continue to focus on the department’s many initiatives underway, including new state assessments and standards.

“It’s certainly been an interesting several months in the department,” she said. “But there continues to be major work going on that that is exciting and interesting and very important to continue. It’s important to the state and it’s important to me, and I won’t stay far away.”

Spicer leaves a department already badly short-handed in key positions, since Schundler had only begun to fill his senior staff before his firing. That progress has essentially halted with the department’s leadership uncertain.

Christie appointed assistant commissioner Rochelle Hendricks to be acting commissioner — and she has fared well by most accounts. But the governor has also said he continues to interview potential permanent replacements while he lays out his own reform agenda.

In addition to Spicer, the state’s math and science education director, Sandra Alberti, is leaving the department as well, officials confirmed yesterday. Alberti has also been central to the state’s instruction policy, including its new high-school biology and algebra tests.

The state Board of Education yesterday gathered in its monthly meeting, discussing some of these policies, and its president, Arcelio Aponte, afterward gave Hendricks a strong vote of confidence.

He acknowledged the department is seeing some instability, “but I find comfort in the acting commissioner.”

“The governor has every right to continue looking, but it is going to be tough to find someone with the background and the experience of Rochelle Hendricks,” Aponte said.

And he said the same for Spicer, as well as Alberti, both of whom have frequently come before the state board to discuss various initiatives.

“How do you replace a Willa Spicer?” Aponte said. “She brings a level of expertise and depth of knowledge of public education that all of us rely on and will be tough to match.”