Former NJ Education Commissioner Expected to Return to Old Post

Christie expected this week to announce choice of David Hespe to succeed Chris Cerf

David Hespe is expected to be named this week as the state's new education commissioner, succeeding Chris Cerf and returning to the post he held during the Whitman administration.
Returning to the job he held more than a decade ago, David Hespe is expected to be named Gov. Chris Christie’s next state education commissioner by the end of this week.

According to two sources close to the situation who asked to remain anonymous, Hespe will be announced in the coming days to succeed Chris Cerf, who is leaving the post after three years of spearheading Christie’s education policies.

The appointment would not be a surprise, as Hespe has been on the short list of likely candidates since Cerf announced his departure at the start of the month. Hespe has been close to the administration, serving as Cerf’s chief of staff in 2011-2012 and serving as chairman of a high-profile task force for the governor.

Now the president of Burlington County College, Hespe would be coming back to the post he held under former Gov. Christie Whitman from 1999 to 2001. Before that, he held a variety of positions within the Legislature’s staff and in the governor’s office, making him a well-known figure in the state’s capital.

In between, he held varied positions, including superintendent of Willingboro schools and vice president of the Liberty Science Center.

The appointment will need final confirmation by the state Senate. Efforts to reach the governor’s office yesterday to confirm the appointment were unsuccessful.

Hespe would be stepping into a maelstrom of challenges, many of them related to implementation of policies and programs initiated by Cerf.

Chief among them will be new teacher-evaluation rules that are starting this year, as well as the phase-in of new Common Core standards and aligned testing coming in the next year.

One of his first tasks will be addressing a tight state budget picture for school districts, with miniscule state aid increases announced by Christie in his fiscal 2015 budget earlier this week. The district-by-district aid numbers are coming out today.

And Hespe will have to deal with the ongoing – if not mounting — tensions and controversies in New Jersey’s state-run districts, especially Newark.

State-appointed Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, who was picked by Cerf for the job and has had his steadfast support, is under intense pressure in the district over her sweeping reorganization of the schools.

Most immediately, Anderson has asked the state education commissioner for a little-used administrative waiver from seniority rules in deciding which teachers are among up to 1,000 she has targeted for layoff in the next three years. It is uncertain whether Cerf will rule on the request before he leaves next week or leave it to his successor to decide.

If approved by Cerf or Hespe, the seniority-rule waiver is sure to be challenged in court by the Newark Teachers Union.

Hespe will, however, bring a different tone to the 800-person department than his predecessor, as he is perceived as a long-time manager rather than the newcomer Cerf represented when he took the Trenton post in 2011 after serving as deputy schools chancellor in New York City.

Even as chief of staff, Hespe was viewed as providing ballast for Cerf in working both within the education department and with the state Legislature.

In an interview while he was serving in that post two years ago, Hespe acknowledged that implementation of policies was as important as the presentation of them.

“This is very difficult work, and really takes a school-by-school approach,” he said in late 2011. “And it takes developing a plan and really making sure it is implemented.”