Murphy readies plan for reopening NJ schools minus critical team member

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

By John Mooney

With Gov. Phil Murphy expected to announce this week the road map for reopening New Jersey’s schools this fall, the man likely to be tasked with presenting the plan — outgoing education commissioner, Lamont Repollet — won’t be around long to execute it.

The state Department of Education last week said Repollet will be staying on another month before taking the helm as president of Kean University. That moves his departure date to the end of July.

But questions swirl as to who his successor will be, churning up more questions and uncertainties.

The administration has another month to come up with Repollet’s successor, a process that so far has been closely guarded, with more rumors to chase than hard leads.

And it also leaves the state education department deeper in limbo just as it will play a critical role in what is an unprecedented time for education.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the department is also losing two of its top leaders under Repollet. Assistant commissioner Linda Eno, maybe Repollet’s highest-profile lieutenant on academic issues, announced her departure last month. Assistant commissioner Abdul Saleem Hassan, who oversaw field services, is moving on to be superintendent of East Orange.

Murphy remains tight-lipped

On Thursday at his daily press briefing, Murphy provided little new light about what happens next. “When we do have an update (on the process), we’ll be sure to get it to you,” he said in response to a question from NJ Spotlight.

But he did provide some clues when expounding on Repollet, saying his background as a former teacher and principal in Carteret and then superintendent in Asbury Park were and remain qualities he is looking for.

“Lamont has been a great leader, and both his professional life story and in the personal life story matter a lot,” Murphy said Thursday.

“He was someone who has classroom experience, which I think is always really important. He was someone who had seen increasing management responsibility, so not just classroom experience but also a principal and ultimately superintendent in Asbury Park, where he and I first met.”

“His life story, both professional and personal, is a model for us,” Murphy said.

Still, the general answer did little to quell the rumors about who will fill the bill. Various stakeholders reached over the past few days said there has not been much shared from the administration about its process for finding Repollet’s successor.

The list of names being circulated — what one dubbed an “echo chamber” of rumors — included current superintendents of both urban and suburban districts, as well as countywide ones.

Several names suggested for interim commissioner have also been mentioned from within the department. An intriguing one is Cary Booker, the U.S. senator’s brother, who now leads the early childhood office. Eno and Hassan might have been possible finalists for the job, too — that is, before their announced departures.

Rumor mill keeps grinding

Lamont Repollet

Repollet emailed a statement Friday that he chose to stay another month so the department would have a smooth transition.

“My decision to stay on at the Department through July was driven by the fact that I simply want to make sure the job is complete before I move on,” he said. “I’ve worked alongside New Jersey’s educators and school leaders for more than 20 years. These are my colleagues and my friends, and we’ve all been working through the greatest health crisis of our time. So I want to leave office knowing that I’ve done what I can to ensure they have the tools and resources they need to continue providing a quality education to their students.”

The question marks come with the territory, according to veterans of gubernatorial commissioner searches.

“They usually play this pretty close to the vest, so this is not that unusual,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the state’s superintendents association. “Last time around, who would have thought Lamont?”

Still, Bozza was among those who said the continuity of leadership from the state is critical at this time, and he hoped it would be resolved soon. The departure of Eno and Hassan, among others, only adds more flux. “For districts, (the assistant commissioners) played a big role, and that’s a pretty big vacuum to fill,” he said.

Others said the two-month gap between Repollet’s announcement that he is leaving and his successor being named is unusual. David Hespe twice served as the state education commissioner, under former Govs. Christie Whitman and Chris Christie, and he said in an interview that a seamless transition is critical — and typically well-choreographed.

“It’s always been very systematic of announcing one person is leaving and the next person is coming in at the same time,” he said. “Maybe there is good reason (for the gap), but if there was ever a point we want a continuity and public confidence in the transition, it may be now.”

All agreed the next commissioner will surely have an enormous job ahead, whoever he or she is. Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the influential chair of the Senate education commission, said she doesn’t envy the eventual pick.

“Whoever assumes that responsibility, they will have a great burden on their shoulders,” she said.