The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves; Or, Is Kowtowing to Union Leaders Good for State Leadership?

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Let’s be clear: the vast majority of staff members at the New Jersey Department of Education are caring, competent people, focused on the best policies for this state’s 1.4 million public school children. I’ve been covering NJ education for a decade and I can’t think of a time when this wasn’t true.

The difference right now is that there appears to be is an undue emphasis on politics instead of policy, as well as a growing culture of fear based on inequitable hiring practices, poor morale, and lack of collaboration among Divisions. Staffers have told me that the pathway to job security is not competence but “loyalty” to Commissioner Lamont Repollet.  Now, I’m not naive: politics is an inevitable element of any entity so enmeshed in issues that attract special interests. Yet through multiple administrations, New Jersey’s Education Commissioners have shared the North Star of equity, accountability, and high standards, from Lucille Davy under (Democrat) Gov. Corzine to Chris Cerf under (Republican) Gov. Christie. (I’m sure this goes further back; just limiting this to what I know first-hand.)

I  hope that Repollet gazes at that same North Star. After all, who could do this work without that singular focus? And yet I’ve rarely seen such dysfunction, even under the most challenging conditions.

Time for a little history.

Let’s go back nine years when the NJ DOE was consumed with completing its first  Race to the Top (RTTT) application, the education reform initiative spearheaded by President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan that awarded competitive grants totaling $4.35 billion to states that proposed innovative and reform-minded education plans. The DOE missed the January 2010 deadline for the first round because Corzine lost the election to Christie and directed Davy to not bother completing the lengthy application. Christie’s appointee Ed. Comm. Brett Schundler was then tasked with starting the application anew.

Lots of things went wrong. Type “Schundler” into the search box of this blog if you want the nitty-gritty. Trust me: It was ugly. It was dysfunctional. It was political, primarily because Schundler was in the impossible position of garnering NJEA leaders’ support for the application (you got extra points for that) and satisfying Christie’s demands for eliminating seniority-based lay-offs, implementing merit pay, and linking student performance to teacher evaluations in a meaningful way. (While the original regulations of NJ’s 2012 teacher evaluation and tenure reform bill called TEACHNJ mandated that 30 percent of evaluations had to be based on student academic growth, the Murphy Administration, bowing to NJEA interests, has sliced that to 5 percent, about as meaningless as you can get.)

With Christie insisting on a reform-embedded application in order to abide by the four “assurances” required by the Obama Administration and NJEA insisting on one that maintained the status quo, what was Schundler to do with up to $400 million at stake and the application deadline drawing near?

He did what he felt he needed to do and acceded to most of NJEA’s wishes. Thus, he ensured both union buy-in and Christie’s ire. At the very last minute, Christie demanded that NJ submit the non-NJEA-approved application and, eventually, fired Schundler.

We lost that round of RTTT (if you’re interested, here’s the reviewers’ comments on our application) although we  did win a relatively paltry $38 million in the third round.

But here’s what’s important:Nine years ago, in spite of the RTTT disaster, in spite of Schundler’s firing, in spite of the vitriol between the Governor and NJEA brass, the DOE continued to function in a healthy way. It smoothly upgraded course content to Common Core level, started piloting what were then called PARCC tests, upgraded its funky technology system, and expanded transparency on school quality for the benefit of families, teachers, and students.

Nine years later, with Murphy firmly in NJEA’s pocket, Repollet’s DOE is grinding down its employees through systemic oppression, dissolution of values, and the new job requirement of “loyalty,” regardless of the impact on schoolchildren.

Does coziness with special interest groups damage functionality? Does this sort of obsequiousness interfere with high-quality leadership and progress? Does genuflection to union bosses – especially in the wrought arena of public education — force potentially good governors to choose the system over student needs, compromising their ability to enact necessary reforms? 

I recall Jon Corzine (another former Goldman Sachs executive) wading into a union rally in 2006, pumping his fist, shouting, “I will fight for you!,”and endearing himself to unions by reversing course on a number of cost-saving items. Corzine was a one-term governor. 

The last two-term Democratic governor of N.J., by the way, was Brendan Byrne, who served from 1974-1982.

Now, any new Commissioner has the prerogative to restructure the Department; Repollet calls it “DOE 2.0.”  But virtually all managerial employees (directors and above) who have institutional knowledge, proven management skills, and expertise in their fields are being 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.  (This nepotism appears to be happening most often in the Communications Division, which is much larger than it ever has been and “handles” Repollet’s photo ops and other appearances.)

Several sources tell me that there’s a “cult of personality.” That’s why there’s been so much turnover, so many whispers, so much fear about giving speaking up . This culture appears most prominently in the Commissioner’s Office and the Communications Division, although it’s certainly present in the Division of Student Services and the Division of Academics and Performance.  Division chiefs eagerly “heap praise” on Repollet in order to get entree into his good graces and inner circle; thus, the Commissioner remains ignorant of many problems.

Or just doesn’t care.

Several staff members have told me that, besides weekly messages from Repollet on “how great everything is at the DOE,” there’s virtually no internal communication. Instead, staffers work in isolated silos, disconnected from related Divisions and preempting any kind of teamwork or affirmation of core values. A long line of commissioners pre-Repollet have worked hard to create a unified department. That unity is unraveling.

I’ve never seen this happen before, even in the wake of our disastrous Race to the Top flop. The damage now is deep, especially with the Department hemorrhaging competence.

More to come. I welcome your help.

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