New Schools Chief Returns at Tumultuous Time for Education in NJ

State-aid crunch, strife in Newark and debate over Christie’s policies greet former education commissioner upon return to Trenton

David Hespe
Gov. Chris Christie picked quite a day yesterday to announce David Hespe would be returning as his next education commissioner, a post he held more than a decade ago.

The governor’s school-aid numbers for next year were released yesterday afternoon to a less-than-enthusiastic reception. Earlier in the day, legislators argued over how to deal with the growing turmoil over the state’s ongoing control of Newark schools. And, throughout the day, advocates were gearing up for protests over the administration’s overall education policies.

Welcome back to Trenton, Mr. Hespe.

Widely rumored, Hespe’s appointment to succeed outgoing commissioner Chris Cerf was announced by press release yesterday, a far cry from the public events held for past commissioners.

It wasn’t entirely surprising, as Christie juggled the need to get a new commissioner in place with dealing with the scandals and investigations swirling around him.

“We’ve made great progress over the last four years, but our work isn’t done,” Christie said in the release. “So, I am gratified that David has agreed to come back to work in my Administration and allow our students and our schools to benefit from his extensive experience, his passion for education excellence and his proven track record of getting results at every level of public education in New Jersey.”

Still, he picked a day that also proved rife with a wide range of debates and dramas surrounding education issues and policies.

A new state budget unveiled Tuesday, with more detailed education-aid figures revealed yesterday, called for only a tiny increase in funding – news that was greeted with both relief (that their aid wasn’t cut) and resignation (over the miniscule increase) by the state’s school districts.

Christie described it as the largest total yet for state aid, but the overall increase was minute and the reality for most districts was that aid totals were still lower than in 2010. The smallest percentage increases went to the state’s urban districts, which prompted the biggest outcry.

Yet maybe the biggest tempest surrounded the situation in the Newark school district, which has been under state control since 1994 and is likely to one of the first fires that Hespe will need to put out once he takes office.

Yesterday, resolutions passed in both the Senate and Assembly along party lines decrying Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s attempts to waive state seniority rules in making close to 1,000 teacher layoffs in the next three years.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) led the legislative protests, saying the waiver request flew in the face of the state’s new tenure-reform law that she crafted. That law, adopted in 2012, called for more deliberative process for dismissing ineffective teachers while keeping seniority rights intact.

“This sends a collective message,” Ruiz said. “For two years, I worked with stakeholders to create a tool kit for districts to insure the best people in front of their classrooms.

“There are statutes in place, and there is no waiver that can change that,” she said of Anderson’s request. “It creates a climate of chaos, and creates a temperature (for teachers) of not knowing what their existence will be in the future.”

Another bill passed by the Senate would seek to slow Anderson’s planned school closures in the district.

And more strife is on the way.

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) planned another protest for today against Anderson’s policy of closing and selling off schools, and a Trenton rally was announced for March against Christie’s education plans statewide.

Hespe, 54, kept a low profile yesterday, declining any extensive comment about his appointment until he is confirmed by the state Senate.

He is not expected to actually take the position until March 20, following a convoluted process that will first see him named an assistant commissioner by the State Board of Education next week and then named the acting commissioner, starting in late March.

Hespe is now the president of Burlington County College, a post he held for a year after serving as Cerf’s chief of staff in 2011-2012, and it was expected he would need some time to transition out of that post. The new job represents a pay cut for Hespe, from his $175,000 salary as a college president to the capped $141,000 for the governor’s cabinet members.

Meanwhile, the reception to his appointment was almost universally positive, if a bit muted with everything else going on.

Many cited his long years in public service and policymaking in Trenton, including two years as former Gov. Christine Whitman’s education commissioner from 1999 to 2001. A few others privately pointed to Hespe as someone who can be a stabilizing presence during a tumultuous time in New Jersey’s education sector.

“Dave Hespe has a proven track record of success in seeking and creating strong partnerships with stakeholders to find creative and effective solutions to complex issues, always keeping in mind a strong focus on student achievement,” said Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

Added James Crisfield, superintendent of Millburn schools and president of Garden State Coalition of Schools: “I welcome David Hespe back to the K-12 public school realm. He’s a proven leader, and we in the field look forward to working with him as well.”

Ruiz herself was among the few legislators to weigh in, citing the challenges that lay ahead.

“There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done on the education front in the state of New Jersey,” Ruiz said in a statement. “I look forward to meeting with him soon to assess the current status of education in the state and to discuss plans for moving forward.”

Among those who had been increasingly at odds with Cerf over the last several years, there appeared to at least be some satisfaction that his successor was a familiar face.

“We are looking forward to working with a Commissioner who understands the actual challenges faced by New Jersey school districts and who appreciates the need to invest in our most at-risk students regardless of ZIP code,” said David Sciarra of the Education Law Center.

The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, issued a lengthy statement from its president, Wendell Steinhauer, with a laundry list of policy and strategy suggestions.

“NJEA has called for a fresh start and a new approach from the Department of Education, and we believe that Mr. Hespe will deliver that,” Steinhauer said.