NJ Gov. Phil Murphy’s state school board nominees move forward

A man in a dark suit jacket in a school building addresses a group of people turned away from the camera.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominees for the State Board of Education have stalled for months, but state lawmakers recently confirmed one and are interviewing another for consideration. (Image courtesy of NJ Governor’s Office)

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Gov. Phil Murphy continues to face an uphill battle filling the expired seats on the State Board of Education.

Of the six nominees he has announced since September 2022, only one has been confirmed by the Senate. With only a few days left in the legislative session, board members who have been in their seats since former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration or earlier may remain in power for a while longer.

The State Board of Education is a 13-member body tasked with adopting the administrative code, which sets the rules for implementing education law. Since Murphy took office in 2018, no new board members have been seated. Mary Bennett, Murphy’s first nominee to receive the advice and consent of the Senate, could be sworn into the board as early as Jan. 10, the board’s next scheduled meeting. The Department of Education did not respond to a question about when she will be sworn in.

Bennett’s road to confirmation was not easy. She faced intense questioning from senators on the Judiciary Committee and her nomination was ultimately released from the committee without recommendation. In the full Senate, her nomination was voted on separately from all the nominees for other positions on the agenda that day. The Senate confirmed Bennett in a 23-12 vote, while all the other nominees passed 33-0.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said during the hearing he believes Bennett’s interview marked the first time the Judiciary Committee has interviewed a nominee to the State Board of Education in 20 years.

“The timing is right to begin that process because our educational process has sort of been hijacked in this country, by folks on the extreme left and the extreme right. Sometimes we need to get back to the basics,” Sarlo said.

One nominee under consideration, while others await interviews

Jeanette Pena, another nominee, was expected to be interviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. If her nomination is released from the committee, she could be up for a vote in the Senate on Monday.

Pena is a bilingual school psychologist with the Jersey City schools. She previously served as president of the Union City Board of Education for 13 years.

The four other nominees are yet to be listed for consideration or an interview in the Senate Judiciary Committee. If they are not confirmed by Jan. 9, Murphy would need to reintroduce the nominees in the next legislative session for them to be considered.

“Mary Bennett, along with his other nominees – Serena Rice, James Williams, Jeanette Pena, Dr. Kwanghee Jung and Dr. Claudine Keenan – have all demonstrated throughout their accomplished careers a steadfast commitment to public education and New Jersey’s students,” Murphy’s deputy press secretary Natalie Hamilton said in a statement. “The governor urges the Senate to confirm the remaining nominees swiftly to best serve New Jersey’s public education system.”

Serena Rice, a pastor at Abiding Peace Lutheran Church in Budd Lake, said she does not know when her nomination will be considered by the Judiciary Committee. She said she has spoken to her local senator and the Senate president, as well as reached out to all the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I’m just waiting for the hearing to be posted,” Rice said. She added that everyone she’s spoken to has been enthusiastic about what she will bring to the board.

Before her current work as a pastor, Rice worked in public policy, focusing on poverty. She said education has been central to her work throughout her entire life.

“I continue to be really focused on education because faith formation for children and continued adult education for members is an important part of what we do at the church,” Rice said. “I think we should always be learners, so I’ve always considered there to be a lot of continuity between my two careers.”

Rice also believes her role as a mother of two kids in local public schools prepares her to serve on the board. She said has one son with significant learning challenges and an individualized education plan, which has shown her the importance of strong special education programs. Her other son is transgender, and the family has worked with the school district to make sure his needs are met and he feels safe and respected at school.

“Part of what I bring to the board is it’s not just an academic question for me, it’s the life of my family,” Rice said.

Murphy nominated Rice, Pena, and James Williams, director of racial justice policy at Fair Share Housing Center, at the end of 2023. He previously nominated Bennett, Stockton University Dean of Education Claudine Keenan, and Kwanghee Jung, associate director for data management and statistics at the National Institute for Early Education Research, in September 2022.

Bennett will replace Mary Beth Gazi. If confirmed, Pena would replace Ernest Lepore, who retired from the board in 2022, leaving the board with 12 members instead of 13.

Hannah Gross covers education and child welfare for NJ Spotlight News via a partnership with Report for America. She covers the full spectrum of education and children’s services in New Jersey and looks especially through the lens of equity and opportunity. This story was first published on NJ Spotlight News, a content partner of Chalkbeat Newark.

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