Acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks: The Unanswered Question

The acting commissioner is committed to the Christie reform agenda, but will the governor give her the title and the top spot?

Credit: NJS
Acting commissioner Rochelle Hedricks, right, and soon-to-be-former deputy commissioner Willa Spicer.
Rochelle Hendricks was again at the head table at the state Board of Education yesterday, her nameplate as New Jersey’s “acting” education commissioner in front of her for the third month running.

But as the uncertainty continues as to whether she will get the formal job after Gov. Chris Christie’s dramatic firing of the last commissioner, Hendricks kept a cheery face, playing down any indecision and saying that her commitment to improving New Jersey public schools was unwavering.

“It’s the governor’s call,” she said of her job prospects. “We will continue to move forward in the things we want to get accomplished. We will not slow down.”

A Slowdown in Trenton?

But the question remains: Have things slowed down at the department’s riverfront offices? There have been significant staff departures in the past few months, and little sign as yet of replacements when Hendricks’ standing remains in doubt.

With Willa Spicer’s formal exit next week as deputy commissioner, that will leave only assistant commissioner Barbara Gantwerk at that level or higher. Veteran division directors leaving — with jobs still unfilled — include Janis Jensen (academic standards), Roberta Wohle (special education) and Sandra Alberti. (math and science instruction).

That’s not to say that Christie doesn’t have big plans for education, with a full plate of promised reforms, from changes in teacher tenure to expansion of charter schools. He has already imposed strict caps on administrative pay.

This week, Christie traveled to Washington, D.C., to promote his agenda, going national with his fight against high superintendent salaries.

“Why is this fight important? Because shared sacrifice is going to be required of everybody to fix this system,” Christie said in the speech before the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

And lately his staff has sent out signals that a commissioner appointment is coming this month to help forward that agenda, although with few details as to whom they are considering other than saying yesterday they are still interviewing candidates.

Time to Fill the Job

But even some of the governor’s strongest supporters on education — some publicly, others more quietly — said it is time to fill the job, a few urging it be with Hendricks, a longtime employee of the department.

Hendricks gets praise for representing a good mix of department experience with loyalty to Christie’s cause, especially around charter schools, for which she led the state’s office before climbing into leadership jobs. Her public refusal last month to attend the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), one of Christie’s archenemies, removed little doubt she would follow Christie’s lead.

“If she’s going to be the person, we need to know,” said Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a Newark school choice advocacy group.

“We’re 10 months into trying to implement Christie’s reform plans,” he said. “Sure there are great people out there, but starting over right now could be a real blow to the continuity of the movement for change.”

The Democrats, of course, are far less supportive of the agenda, but said stability at the top would help them at least know whom to talk to.

“It is really at this point a one-man show, and his lack of appointment of a commissioner is evidence of it,” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly education committee.

He said former commissioner Bret Schundler, who lost the job after the bungled Race to the Top application, had spoken with him at least 10 times.

“No insult intended to her, but I’ve never met the acting commissioner,” said Diegnan. “I understand it is probably difficult for her.”

Adding to the Challenge

Outside the political arena, others said the extended time without a full appointment only adds to the challenge if the next hire is not Hendricks.

“Leadership from the commissioner of education is critical,” said Richard De Lisi, dean of Rutgers Graduate School of Education. “Given where we are in the current reform process — at the beginning — the longer Rochelle does the job and puts her stamp on things, the more difficult it becomes to have a new person take ownership.

“In other words, if Gov. Christie intends to make a change he should do so sooner rather than later.”

Still, the Democrats are not foreign to keeping the high-profile post in extended limbo status themselves.

Under former Govs. Richard Codey and Jon Corzine, Lucille Davy was acting commissioner for nearly a year before being named to the post. And it didn’t appear to slow her down much, as she moved immediately to rescind a statewide testing contract and appointed several senior staff to assistant commissioner jobs.

But after all the departures, there may be fewer such staff to chose from now than three years ago. Schundler had yet to fill many of the main assistant commissioner slots before his firing, mostly bringing in people to lower-level positions.

His one prominent appointment was Andrew Smarick, a nationally known conservative commentator and former federal education official. Schundler sought to appoint him deputy commissioner, but the state Board of Education balked at his lack of education credentials.

Smarick remains in a “special assistant” position in the department, making $129,000, actually more than Hendricks’ current salary of $121,000. The full commissioner’s position pays $141,000. A department spokesman said Smarick is “involved in policy development, planning and research for a wide variety of projects.”

Interviewing Candidates

The state Board of Education president, Arcelio Aponte, said he remains confident of Hendricks’ leadership and also hopes that she is chosen to keep the job. He said she has begun to bring in potential candidates for top jobs, including for deputy commissioner, special education director, and math and science director.

“The ones we have seen have a lot of depth of knowledge,” he said. ‘We are starting the discussion, and what I can appreciate is she is bringing them in early.”

Overall, Aponte said he’s actually encouraged by the lack of any buzz and rumors around the full appointment.

“I think the silence is favoring Rochelle,” he said. “I think the governor is seeing how valuable she is. Not only for her institutional memory, but she represents the administration well.”

But Aponte stopped short of saying much more. “All this could change next week if he decides on someone else,” he said.