Some Unexpected Drama for Staid, State Board of Education

John Mooney | May 26, 2017 | Education
Naming two new members to the panel kicks up some legislative dust as Senators want to interview replacements

Mark Biedron, outgoing president of state Board of Education
Usually an uneventful process, the appointment of members to the state Board of Education has taken on some political drama under Gov. Chris Christie, who has named a majority of the panel in his seven years.

Now, a new twist — and some mystery — has arisen in the governor’s last year, as his latest round of appointments has drawn renewed attention to the board and has set in motion a political dance with the Senate’s Democratic leadership.

Christie nominated five members in December, three of them replacements and two renewals. That’s not unusual for the 13-member board, where turnover is often high. But this time the appointments caused a stir, most notably for replacing the board’s two ranking and highest-profile officers, president Mark Biedron and vice president Joseph Fisicaro.

[related]Speculation mounted, especially that Biedron, who Christie appointed along with Fisicaro in 2011, had maybe bucked the governor with some of his positions, particularly on charter school regulation. Others countered that it was the normal churn of the board’s membership.

Whatever the reason, the Senate leadership under President Steve Sweeney moved slowly on the names this winter and didn’t even post them for consideration for months.

Then suddenly, in the past month, that changed.

After effectively stalling for months, the Senate judiciary committee yesterday moved with those two appointments to replace Biedron and Fisicaro. Named in their stead were Mary Elizabeth Gazi and Kathy Goldenberg.

The move came despite the dissent of prominent Democrats on the committee, who complained they should have an opportunity to interview the candidates in public, the usual practice. One senator said she sought to have the candidates come before the committee and was denied.

“The public have the right to know the positions of the people who will decisions on the education of our children,” said state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex). “The parents and children deserve transparency.”

Gill said: “This would be the first time since I have been on the judiciary [committee] that my request … to allow the public interview has been denied.”

But committee chair Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) pushed back and said there are no requirements for the public testimony of what are hundreds of state appointments that come before the committee, and he was “not going to bring in every person to be interviewed.”

“These nominees were fairly well known for months, and there was opportunity to interview in private,” he said.

The committee ultimately moved the names to the full Senate, with final votes expected in June. (The board was also to act on the nomination of Nina Washington to replace Edithe Fulton, another outspoken board member and former New Jersey Education Association president. However, that nomination was tabled.)

The flurry of events brought questions about why the Democratic leadership was moving now on any of the names, after failing to even hold hearings on the appointments since Christie announced them six months ago.

Susan Cauldwell of Save Our Schools New Jersey, the parent advocacy group, spoke before the committee and said Biedron and Fisicaro were being “unfairly forced off the board.” Representing an organization that is often at odds with the state, she nevertheless called them two of the most accessible and hard-working members of the panel.

“We do not know why this action is being taken,” she said. “These members should be easily reappointed.”

Darcie Cimarusti, an outspoken advocate and also president of the Highland Park school board, said they were among the few board members who had resisted Christie’s moves to loosen the licensing requirements for charter school teachers, a proposal eventually tabled by the board.

“Why these board members and why now?” Cimarusti said.

Other Democrats on the committee appeared clearly uneasy, too. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) called it a “real dent in transparency.”

“This is an important appointment, an important board, and this committee should have a right to interview this person in public,” she said.

Gill was defiant in the final vote: “What are we hiding? Why are we doing this at this time, in this way?”

Nevertheless, the nominations passed the committee and looked primed for final confirmation, and Sweeney’s office said yesterday that they are expected to be taken up in June.

Contacted yesterday after the hearing, Biedron said he was resigned to his fate, but will continue to work for the board until replaced.

“We certainly have plenty on our plate,” he said of the agenda ahead, including a new strategic plan for the board and a host of administrative code that needs review and approval. “I’ll keep doing what I am doing until told otherwise.”

Yet when asked for his reaction, some frustration spilled over.

“It is frustrating to be caught in the middle of this,” Biedron said. “Now, I have no idea to what exactly this is, but it certainly has nothing to do with what is best for kids.”