Questions arise over same-day hiring, firing of Education commissioner deputy

It could be a brewing controversy in the nascent Murphy administration. Did the powerful teacher’s union force the new governor to pull the nomination of a seemingly well-qualified educator nominated to serve as an assistant education commissioner? Paula White was hired unanimously by the state Board of Education, and then fired on the very same day, raising eyebrows and questions about just who’s going to be setting the state’s education agenda. Senior Correspondent David Cruz has the details.

Cruz: Paula White is an accomplished educator. She has a B.A. in Child Development from Spelman, an M.A. in Educational Leadership from Teachers College at Columbia. She started a charter school in Newark, served on the education commissioner’s Charter School Task Force, and most recently she was the chief turnaround officer for the state’s Department of Education. So you would think great candidate for at least an assistant commissioner of education job, and that seemed to be the way things were going until early this month. We pick up the story now with Paula White, who is with us now. So let’s talk a little bit about this timeline of what went down. In January, you get a call from the education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, and he says, what?

White: He said, you know I’m really interested in having you join my team, join my executive team, to help to lead the Department of Education to new heights.

Cruz: So, then the board meeting comes. What happens there? This is the meeting of the state Board of Education.

White: The meeting of the state Board of Education. So this was actually a very short agenda, and it was really for the expressed purpose for approving some candidates that Acting Commissioner Repollet brought before the board. And that meeting went exceedingly well. I was unanimously approved by the state Board of Education. Both the acting commissioner and the chair of the board both spoke in positive terms about the value add that I would be bringing to the department, and I was just really eager and happy to be able to move forward with the organization.

Cruz: You thank the board at this thing, you have this kind of speech, they take pictures and everything, and then you go home and you get a phone call.

White: That’s right. I actually hadn’t quite made it home because I was driving from Trenton getting back to Montclair, where I live and then I get a call, while I’m in the car, and the call said, ‘Hey, you know, I need to talk to you, I’ve got bad news.’ And I thought, oh goodness.

Cruz: This is the acting education commissioner?

White: This is the acting education commissioner informing me that my offer was being rescinded. It was sort of very ambiguous, wouldn’t go into detail, but just said that this was something that he had to do and that it would not be changing. And by not changing, saying that an assistant commissioner role was off the table. In other words, I was no longer going to be considered for a senior cabinet role. That could not be my title. I could not be a part of that inner circle.

Cruz: So what’s going on in your mind here? You’re like, what?

White: I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to think. Certainly when we began our conversation, I did talk to the acting education commissioner about making sure that, whomever the folks were, that he would be presenting my name before that, but that they were crystal clear about who I was. I shared my resume. I’m proud of all the work that I’ve done and all of the organizations and entities with which I’ve been affiliated. But I do understand that we do operate in a political environment and I wanted to just be exceedingly transparent about making sure that folks were clear about who they were bringing to the table.

Cruz: So The Star-Ledger’s Tom Moran suggested that the NJEA, the state’s teacher’s union, had objection to your candidacy because you were at one point state director of Democrats for Education Reform, and that those groups do battle, or disagree or whatever.

White: I would say that that is absolutely true that we don’t always see eye to eye with the issues. Democrats for Education Reform is an organization that really supports, champions public school children. And part of what we believe is that accountability is really important in education, especially for the most disenfranchised children. So we care a lot about making sure that assessments are administered to kids. And we care a lot about making sure that public schools are good, regardless or sort of who’s at the helm of them. We take a very agnostic approach to the kinds of public schools that exist, but the NJEA doesn’t do that. To what extent that played into the decision, I’m really not sure, but it is really a fact that there is some tension there, certainly in political opinions.

Cruz: So did you think that, when this all started to unfold, did you think that that was part of it?

White: It did cross my mind, absolutely, yes.

Cruz: So here you are, an educator of some pretty good, sterling I would say reputation, and then this is what happens to you. What do you feel in retrospect? I mean disrespect has got to be, at least, the minimum, right?

White: So, I do feel a level of disrespect, but I think more importantly one of the benefits of sort of going to school and getting a college education and doing what mom and dad tells you to do is that I feel that I will have other options, right? That I will sort of be able to land on my feet. But really this is about sort of the larger issue of who gets to be at the table to make decisions for our children and what is the vetting process that we’re using for that. Are we thinking about competency? Are we thinking about folks that are steeped in public policy that understand education, that have been on the ground? Is that what we’re focusing on, or are we focusing on people that have the right connections based on whomever is in or out of favor politically with an entity or organization. So that’s my fear, is really that we’re using sort of the wrong measurements, we’re using the wrong metrics, to evaluate folks that we deem to be qualified to serve and to contribute to education for the 1.4 million kids in New Jersey.

Cruz: So what would you say to the governor if he was sitting here, to the extent that, do you believe he had some role in this?

White: I really can’t speculate or say that one way or the other. The first thing I would say to the governor, I did see him on the night when he did win because I’ve been a supporter. As a member of Democrats for Education Reform, the first thing I would say is congratulations. And the second thing I would say is that as you are moving forward with your education agenda, it’s going to be really important to have all kinds of different folks at the table. And to be willing to listen and understand the various perspectives that will help to inform a final policy position that will be beneficial for all children.

Cruz: A mix that doesn’t necessarily include the entire agenda of one particular advocacy group.

White: Absolutely. I think it’s so important because the fact of the matter is we have a very high-performing education system in New Jersey, but it’s not doing the same things for all children in New Jersey. And there are huge disparities that exist, and in order for us to tackle those, we have to be willing to have difficult conversations and we have to be willing to put forth an agenda and really work hard for kids, not for adults, but for children.