Lamont Repollet’s coming-out party yesterday proved to be pretty upbeat.
Named to be Gov. Phil Murphy’s education commissioner, the former Asbury Park schools superintendent came before the state Legislature for his confirmation hearing and appeared to more than hold his own — even with Republicans.
In his first extended public comments since his nomination, Repollet parried questions about school funding, charter schools and school security, among other topics, pledging to be open and transparent on what lies ahead.
He didn’t provide much detail or news, however, and even evaded some topics outright. But he promised to hear all voices, saying he knew the plight of urban districts like the one he came from, as well as the suburban ones that see a smaller piece of the state’s dwindling largesse.
And when the Senate judiciary committee voted in Repollet’s favor, all but sealing his final confirmation by the full Senate next month, there was a resounding burst of applause from the packed State House hearing room — many from friends and family — but also from those welcoming a shift in the state’s policies on pubic education.
“He’s just got a wonderful disposition, a great guy, well respected as an educator,” state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, the committee’s chairman, said afterward. “He’s got the whole package. He’s a good, smart guy.”
Even a skeptical Republican like state Sen. Michael Doherty couldn’t help notice the celebration in the room.
“This is a first,” he said, after Scutari asked for a five-minute break to clear the hearing room of the hugs and high fives. “We have a little party breaking out.”
The two-hour hearing was wide ranging. This was the first time Repollet had spoken extensively — at least publicly — on the myriad issues facing public schools since Murphy named him as his education commissioner.
Senate Democrats largely praised him, saying he was a welcome change from his predecessors under former Gov. Chris Christie. Following through, at least in part, on Murphy’s pledge to fully fund schools under the state’s school finance law was a popular first step, they said. But that didn’t mean there weren’t a few points of contention, or at least extended conversation.
For the Republicans, questions focused on the extent of the new administration’s support for middle-class and suburban districts. Murphy has proposed a state budget for next year that would include $280 million in additional aid to schools, with no cuts to any districts but also limited increases to some long underfunded.
Although possibly best known for his experience in Asbury Park, Repollet repeatedly came back to his work as a long-time principal at Carteret High School to highlight his understanding of districts left in the middle.
“I truly understand what they are going through,” he said to one line of questioning from Doherty, one of the Senate’s most conservative members. “And more importantly, I get what it is that the kids are not getting.”
But Repollet also hedged on saying what he would do for them, only going so far as committing to working with stakeholders to “modernize” the funding formula to address gaping needs. He said everything would be under discussion, from property-tax limits to the extra aid to districts now receiving more than the formula allows.
“I need to sit down with this body, so as we can truly assess this formula,” he said.
Another hot topic was charter schools. Murphy has called for a slowdown in the state’s approval of new charters, and Repollet has thus far followed through in denying new expansions, although he did approve one new opening for the fall.
Not entirely coincidentally, charter school advocates were among several groups that held boisterous rallies yesterday outside the State House, including speeches from several prominent Senate Democrats — among them, Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
“We need to make sure that choice is here to stay,” Sweeney told the crowd outside, “that parents make the decisions on their child’s education. There are 50,000 kids in charter schools for one reason, because parents chose to have their children there.”
“We will continue to fight to expand charters and make sure our young people get the education they deserve,” he said.
Inside, Repollet played the middle ground, withholding any attacks on charters but also saying he was intent on reviewing the state’s charter school law and improving upon it.
In the end, he drew praise from not just the politicians. Repollet’s admirers were a disparate group, from family and school friends to a parent from Asbury Park who said the superintendent had made a big difference in his hometown.
‘“I’ve seen the improvement,” said Darryl Hammary, a father of four in the district. “The quality of life, the attitude, everything. If he could turn around Asbury Park, imagine what he could do for the rest of the state.”
Genise Hughes is an educator in Asbury Park school district. “I’m excited to know that all of the students in New Jersey will be getting what Asbury Park has been getting,” she said.
“I know he’s a fair man who can assess, create, and execute his ideas. He’s not for sale … They got a good one today.”
Legislators and celebrations aside, the more cautious said they hoped the best for the new commissioner, while recognizing the challenges ahead.
“You have a monumental task,” said state Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Somerset), “and I wish you well.”