There’s still no word on who Gov. Phil Murphy will choose to succeed Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet after he departs the administration to become president of Kean University next month.
“No update on the status in terms of his successor,” Murphy said during Thursday’s daily COVID-19 briefing.
The absence of a clear successor isn’t necessarily a problem, despite Repollet’s impending departure. The commissioner is set to leave the administration sometime before the start of August. He had expected to start at Kean on July 1 but delayed the move to minimize disruptions caused by the transition.
Though the eventual nominee would have to be confirmed by the State Senate, they could be hired into a high-ranking role within the Department of Education and be made the interim commissioner without legislative approval.
That short-term hire was of greater concern to the State Senate’s top education official.
“Initially, before all the follow-up announcements, I wasn’t concerned because he had a very qualified bench and he still has some individuals there,” State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) said. “To me, the urgency is not so much finding the permanent person but who we can appoint in the interim.”
Linda Eno, the assistant education commissioner in charge of academics and performance, earlier this year announced she would retire in June, and Assistant Commissioner of Field Services AbdulSaleem Hasan is leaving the administration to become superintendent of the East Orange school district.
It’s not clear how, if at all, the pandemic has affected the timelines for their departures.
Ruiz said she believed other Department of Education officials could step in to fill Repollet’s shoes but worried that such a maneuver could leave the agency with more vacancies in its upper echelons.
“I’m sure there’s still people who have been there for a time that, in an interim capacity, can do it,” the senator said. “The problem is that, when you shift that person up, now there’re even more vacancies on that other tier.”
Ruiz said she would like Repollet, who is black, to be replaced with another person of color.
“I think every opportunity that we have to be sure that we are putting people in directorships and in commissioner positions that look like the State of New Jersey, I mean, It’s a win-win,” the senator said.
But she stressed that a prospective nominee’s qualifications and propensity for student advocacy, not their race, should be to main drivers in the search for the outgoing commissioner’s replacement.
“The focus is to find an individual that is going to carry out the mission of fighting for every student in the state of New Jersey and someone who has a clear understanding that, while we have some good school systems, we have other systems that are lagging way far behind,” Ruiz said. “It’s going to require somebody who’s courageous who will tackle the important conversations so that we can all get to the finish line.”