Profile: Interim Schools Chief Jumps into the Fire

Kevin Dehmer takes over at a time when New Jersey’s education system has been turned upside down
Credit: nj.gov
Kevin Dehmer

Who: The state Department of Education’s chief financial officer, Kevin Dehmer was named interim commissioner of education on July 1, when Lamont Repollet stepped aside to become president of Kean University, as had been announced a month earlier.

Salary: $132,902 (2019)

What is the role?: Dehmer effectively took over the commissioner’s responsibilities as the second highest-ranking person in the department, while the Murphy administration searches for a new commissioner. Dehmer had been Repollet’s finance director for the last two years, and for nearly a decade before had served a multitude of roles within the department.

Why he matters: These are not normal times, and Dehmer steps into a leadership role at a time when New Jersey’s education system of 1.4 million students and 350 schools has been tossed upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why he really matters: For at least the time being, the department that Dehmer leads is playing a crucial role in deciding when and how schools will reopen, with guidance shifting almost by the day.

Background: Dehmer has an extensive resume in public education policy in New Jersey, serving many, mostly financial, positions within the DOE since 2007. Spanning several administrations, he was involved in the state’s work on the School Funding Reform Act and the landmark Abbott v. Burke decisions.

Academia: Dehmer graduated from Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School with a master’s degree in public policy, and was an Eagleton Institute graduate fellow in politics and government. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Saint John’s University in Minnesota.

Quiet sidekick: Dehmer has been often at the commissioner’s elbow answering questions when he or she was testifying before the Legislature or the state Board of Education on any number of issues. But he generally keeps a low profile, and so far has made few public comments in his new role.

No comment: That held true in a request denied for this article.

That may soon change: Gov. Phil Murphy — with likely Dehmer nearby — is expected today to announce the latest guidance out of the department, and maybe none more critical: How and when families could stay in a virtual learning setting when schools reopen.

Quote: “We’re going to have more tomorrow on what remote learning we think can look like,” Murphy said Thursday.

School funding next: Dehmer’s financial background will be paramount as Murphy next has to grapple with school funding in the upcoming fiscal year 2021 budget, set to be announced in a month. Murphy has warned that without federal help, districts could stand to lose $1 billion — the depth of the last deep cuts in 2010. It will be Dehmer’s department that does the math.