Hespe Keeps Low Profile During First Day Back on the Job as NJ Education Chief

John Mooney | March 21, 2014 | Education
Despite well-wishers and welcome-back greetings, new commissioner's repeat performance won't be piece of cake

Education Commissioner David Hespe
Greeted outside his office with a marble sheetcake reading “Welcome Back, Dave,” David Hespe yesterday returned to Trenton to serve as New Jersey’s state education commissioner for a second time.

Appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to replace outgoing commissioner Chris Cerf, Hespe’s first day back on the job was described as relatively routine. He met with some top staff and caught up with a position that he served in more than a decade ago under former Gov. Christine Whitman.

Hespe did not give any interviews yesterday or make any public appearances, with his staff saying he would first focus on getting reacquainted with the job that he held for two years in Whitman’s second term.

Hespe, who also served as Cerf’s chief of staff from 2011-2012, comes back to state government after being president of Burlington County College for the past year.

Coming in to serve in Christie’s second term, Hespe will have little time to catch his breath as a host of looming — and in some cases urgent — decisions await him.

Among them is a request from Newark’s state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson to waive seniority regulations in the planned layoff of up to 1,000 teachers and other staff in New Jersey’s largest district.

The commissioner also must soon rule on another hot-button topic: whether to clear two more charter school networks to open as many as 10 schools in Camden over the coming years, under the state’s new Urban Hope Act.

A host of smaller issues also must be resolved, including a closely watched proposal from Pascack Valley Regional High School to use a day of online learning to make up for a snow day this winter.

And there are the massive efforts he will oversee in the department’s continued phasing-in of the new teacher evaluation system this year, alongside new PARCC testing aligned the Common Core State Standards that will start in 2015 and is being field tested in more than 1,200 schools this spring.

Most immediate may be the state’s education budget for fiscal 2015; Christie has proposed a minimal $20 per pupil increase for the year, amounting less than 1 percent overall.

The budget hearings are slated to begin next week, with Hespe likely to testify for the education spending before the Senate budget committee on April 3 and the Assembly budget committee on May 5.

“One of the immediate focuses will be the upcoming budget hearings,” said Michael Yaple, a department spokesman. “That in itself will be a heavy lift.”