Hespe Breezes Through Pro Forma Approval at State Board of Ed Meeting

John Mooney | March 6, 2014 | Education
Outgoing commissioner Cerf takes a few swipes at NJEA on his way out the door

Education Commissioner David Hespe
David Hespe returned to the state Department of Education yesterday needing no introduction.

For the fourth time in his lengthy resume of state service, Hespe went before the State Board of Education for its endorsement. This time out he’s slotted to be New Jersey’s next commissioner of education, replacing Chris Cerf.

Hespe is a well-known figure in the department, serving as commissioner in 1999 and then chief of staff to Cerf two years ago.

“We welcome you back,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board’s president.

The welcome was warm and wide, with the board unanimously confirming Hespe to be an assistant commissioner, a formality for him to then be named acting commissioner, effective March 20. The state Senate has final confirmation power.

As for Cerf, he was said to have campaigned hard for Hespe before Gov. Chris Christie, and he left little doubt yesterday that Hespe was his chosen successor, saying he has his “absolute strongest recommendation.”

“I have had the pleasure of working with Dave,” Cerf said. “He is an extraordinary talent . . . and I am personally grateful for his willingness to serve.”

Hespe may bring a different style to the job than did Cerf, one shaped by his years as an insider in Trenton politics. But the incoming commissioner yesterday gave little indication that he would change course on any major policies.

Hespe served closely with Cerf in 2011 and 2012 as his chief of staff, before he left to be president of Burlington County College. In between, he also led a Christie-appointed task force that recommended a wide range of moves to ease regulations on the state’s schools, a blueprint still being closely followed under Cerf.

“I know there is a lot of good yet to be done, and that has brought me back,” Hespe said yesterday.

On his last day on the job before he becomes a chief executive of Amplify, an education software developer, Cerf yesterday helped lead the state board’s meeting and promoted a number of initiatives on topics such as early childhood education and charter schools.

He did not stick around for the public testimony that saw dozens of people speak against a wide range of Christie policies, including the ongoing state control of Newark schools, a particular hot spot of late.

But he did not go out with a whisper.

In what is likely his last statewide broadcast, Cerf took the unusual step of sending out a letter to school districts refuting the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, on what he said were its inaccurate claims about new initiatives in teacher evaluation and student testing.

In the letter, Cerf pulled few punches against the union that has been a frequent and unrelenting antagonist.

“I cannot say for certain why the new leadership of the NJEA has decided to engage in a deliberate campaign of misinformation,” he wrote.

“I do know that they are personally aware that their statements are false, as I have engaged them directly with the incontrovertible, publicly verifiable facts. In response, they exhibit what can only be described as reckless indifference to the truth.”