Various news outlets are reporting on a second scandal (the first was Al Alvarez) at the School Development Authority, the agency that manages about $11 billion for school construction, primarily in Abbott districts. A Murphy political ally, Lizette Delgado-Polanco, was hired to run the agency last August and immediately fired 26 staff members, many of whom had served for years under both Democratic and Republican Administrations. She then hired 33 new staffers, some at atypically high salaries. (Delgado-Polanco herself makes $225,000 a year, $50,000 more than Murphy.)
Of those new hires, at least ten are friends of Delgado-Polanco or worked with her at in her previous roles, as political director for the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters and executive director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Service Employees International Union. Another was a cousin who was accused of sexual harassment at a previous job. Another, Laury-Ann Diaz, is the mother of Delgado-Polanco’s grandson; from the Star-Ledger: “pictures on social media show Diaz with Delgado-Polanco and her family vacationing in Rome in November.”
Sound familiar? It should. We’ve seen the same dismissal of institutional knowledge and the exercise of nepotism playing out at the Department of Education.* There, Commissioner Lamont Repollet keeps a book of resumes that Division heads must use when making hires. There,virtually all managerial employees (directors and above) who have institutional knowledge, proven management skills, and expertise in their fields have been fired or reassigned, replaced by those with little or no experience, including some who are relatives and/or family friends of Repollet and his Chief of Staff, most often in the Communications Divison, but also in the Division of Student Services and the Division of Academics and Performance. There, staffers tell me that they feel like they’re in “Trump’s White House” when describing how “frat bro” relationships supersede equitable dispersal of funding. There, hard-working personnel feel beseiged by nonsensical rules that limit interaction between Divisions, where they’re allowed to have lunch, how they dress**, and acts of racism. There, Repollet boasts that he initiated the DOE’s first recognition of Black History Month when staffers tell me the DOE “hosts a program and usually a series of drop-in events every year.”
I’m seeing a pattern: Al Alvarez maintaining his post at the SDA in spite of a credible accusation of rape; Lizette Delgado-Polanco firing long-time, highly-regarded staffers to find jobs for friends and relatives; Lamont Repollet (and other Division heads like Carolyn Marano) taking a well-functioning Department and driving it into the ground.
If this were just a political disgrace that prompted eye-rolling cynicism, there wouldn’t be much to say. Right now, after all, Michael Cohen is testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, explaining how Trump made him threaten schools if they released his grades and SAT scores, how Trump knew about the hush-money payments to his mistresses, how Trump’s team communicated directly with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange about a drop of hacked Democratic emails.
But the difference here is that the shenanigans at SDA and the DOE directly affect children.
Example: What’s happened to the much-heralded “Charter School Act Review” implemented by the DOE? Thirty-five thousand children, primarily poor and of color, sit on wait lists while Repollet, New Jersey’s sole charter authorizer, sits on his heels. Think about the DOE’s review of standardized tests, the subject of much consternation in the Legislature? (Senator Troy Singleton: “Being able to close the achievement gap should keep us all up at night. We literally have a tale of two education systems based on our zip codes” Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt: “I’m not sure about the strategy that you’re taking, and I’m very, very concerned about this, commissioner.”)
Grown-ups can be stupid and self-serving. We live with this every day. But when this behavior affects our neediest kids, we’ve crossed the line.
Governor, we’ve crossed the line and the buck stops with you. Now what are you going to do about it?
*I’ve heard similar stories about activities at the Department of Transportation but haven’t been able to verify them from other independent sources so I’m not going there.
** Here’s the email sent to staff:
From: Personnel Services
Sent: Tuesday, January 29, 2019 12:56 PM
To: All Exchange Users
Subject: Dress Code Policy & Procedure 2019
The Department of Education has issued a Dress Code Policy and Procedure effective February 19, 2019.
Below is the link to the Dress Code Policy and Procedure and Acknowledgement of Receipt. Employees are required to sign and return the Acknowledgement of Receipt to your division’s Personnel Coordinator no later than Friday, February 8, 2019.
The Dress Code Policy and Procedure and Acknowledgement of Receipt can be found at: http://doeintranet/content/