News of major changes in New Jersey’s public education system typically blare on major (and minor) news sites. So here’s a scoop that I’d rather not have: on July 20th, eleven days ago, approximately 40 people were unceremoniously fired from their posts at the Department of Education. I spoke to one of them, a mid-level manager at the Office of Comprehensive Support, a division of the DOE that serves our lowest-performing districts and provides, according to the DOE website, “direct, individualized support to persistently struggling schools and districts in close alignment with program offices, county offices, and NJDOE initiatives.”
I asked “what happened?” Why did Commissioner Repollet decide (if, indeed, he was the decider) to abruptly fire 40 long-term professionals who support districts like Elizabeth, Trenton, Paterson, Jersey City, Woodbridge, and Atlantic City?
According to my source, who wishes to remain anonymous, the expulsions were “without cause” and “purely political.” Now, to be fair, this official noted, new administrations typically bring in their own people; indeed, in January upon Gov. Murphy’s inauguration, some top-level people were fired from the DOE. But now? In August, with schools ready to open in four weeks? What’s going on?
First, the facts. While there was a little talk about downsizing, staff members were largely unworried about job security. Then on Thursday, July 19th, 40 staff members at the DOE received notice that the following day they would have 10-minute individual meetings with the Personnel Director. At those meetings they were handed letters, signed by Chief Administrative Officer Dodi Price, that said their positions were terminated “immediately.” Clear out your desks, turn in your laptops, and go home. The letters, as well as the process, said my source, were “callous” and “sloppily done.”
Now the repercussions. The districts (most but not all Abbotts) served by these professionals depend on the support of the Office of Comprehensive Support for leadership training, data analysis, support for English Language Learners and special education instruction, and other essential services. The collaboration between the Office and the districts relies on years of relationship-building: at first, districts were “extremely wary” of the oversight but now welcome those they consider partners in improving student outcomes. Now that support is gone. (This, according to the source, puts the DOE in a precarious position in regards to fulfilling its assurances in our federal ESSA plan.)
Do the districts even know their partners are gone? While the Division Director retained her job, the rest of the office is in “disarray.”
Why, I asked, do you think Commissioner Repollet fired almost the whole office? This professional chuckled. “I don’t even know why he’s Commissioner,” he said. “He wasn’t on anyone’s radar and just came out of nowhere. We were all surprised [at Gov. Murphy’s selection of Repollet].” When the Commissioner had his first meetings with teams, he “was very generic about his goals. It felt like he was talking down to us and didn’t really understand our mission. “He’s not his own boss,” this long-time manager told me.
I asked, as an aside, about this past February’s abrupt dismissal of then-Assistant Commissioner of Education Paula White, rumored to be at NJEA’s request to Gov. Murphy. (See here for my coverage.) “Paula used to lead our division,” my source said. “Her situation is demonstrative of what happened to me and my colleagues, maybe a harbinger of what happened two weeks ago.” He added, “if anyone knows Paula’s background there’s no reason she wouldn’t have been a phenomenal addition to the DOE.” When her appointment was announced and the State Board of Education unanimously confirmed her, he recalled, there were “lots of hugs, lots of excitement.” She came in and met her team, found her office. Then, in the car on the way home from her first day of as Assistant Commissioner, “she got a call on her phone. She was out.”
“NJEA pushed her out.”
Upon White’s dismissal, Senator Teresa Ruiz said, “The whole thing is strange,” You offer a highly qualified individual a position, she gets the unanimous support of the state board, is introduced to her staff, and later the same day she gets the job rescinded. From the outside, it looks suspect.”
I think the group-firing of an office closely linked to NJ’s Abbott districts is suspect as well. The source for this post agrees. The firing of Paula White (because she spent 18 months working for Democrats for Education Reform) and the subsequent firing of 40 dedicated professionals doesn’t serve our most needy students.
“If this is how it’s going to go for the next three and a half years,” my source said, “we have a problem. Murphy is aligning himself with the politics of adults. This means you’re not aligning yourself with students.”
Anyone else with direct knowledge of this mass expulsion? Feel free to contact me.
Update: Indeed, since this post went up late yesterday, three people have contacted me. They all have asked for anonymity and, of course, I’ll honor that.
Of the three, two confirmed that at least some of the firings were at the request of NJEA. One said, “some of this was NJEA payback.” Another explained that the Governor has a limited number of appointments in the DOE and so some policy decisions are made by staffers. NJEA didn’t like some of those decisions and “want their own people in there.” The axing of 40 people was, this person said, “definitely prompted by NJEA.” She added, “it was a bloodbath… they gutted the department.”
Another person said that some of the firings were due to Commissioner Repollet’s appointment. He was previously superintendent at Asbury Park and some DOE staff members who were involved with Asbury Park’s oversight lost their jobs. (See here.) One DOE manager, she said, was fired because he “turned down someone’s unqualified relative for a principal certification.” No temporary employees were fired, which she said was “weird”; see here from a 2016 NJ Spotlight article:
A NJ Spotlight investigation found 20 “Temporary Employment Service” workers were paid more than $75,000 by NJDOE last year while they received retirement checks from the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund.
On average, they raked in $182,000 in 2015 – $102,000 in pay and $79,000 from pension. Overall, the combined cost was $3.64 million – $2.06 million from NJDOE and $1.58 million from TPAF. Generally, TPAF pension benefits must be suspended when retired educators return to work in public school systems. But when NJDOE hires them as TES workers, they are exempted from a pension rule intended to prevent double-dipping. So they can legally pocket both state pay and retirement checks, year after year…Seven double-dipping TES workers on NJDOE’s payroll each raked in more than $200,000 last year.
An informant told me that there is little institutional knowledge left in the DOE and it “takes years to learn the ropes.” They don’t “have people waiting in the wings” and “there’s a long learning curve. There’s now a huge void. I’ve never seen anything like this.” The firings, she said, were “absolutely obscene.”