New Jersey state school board gains two new members with ‘fresh perspectives’

Three people stand near a blue table where a person in a suit is sitting. Portraits and flags are in the background.
New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy administers the oath of office to Mary Bennett, a former Newark educator and new member of the State Board of Education at a meeting on Jan. 17, 2024. Jeannette Peña, not pictured, was also sworn in at the meeting. (Catherine Carrera / Chalkbeat)

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For the first time under Gov. Phil Murphy’s tenure, the New Jersey State Board of Education welcomed two new members: a former Newark Public Schools program director and a former Union City school board member.

Mary Bennett, of Irvington, and Jeannette Peña, of Union City, took their oaths of office before a full conference room during Wednesday’s board meeting at the state Department of Education building in Trenton.

“How exciting for us to have new perspectives on the board,” acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said at the meeting. “With your vast experience, I know that our board is in good hands.”

Bennett has extensive experience as an educator in various roles, including a Newark Public Schools program director, high school principal and vice principal, English language arts teacher, educational consultant for Seton Hall University, and education mentor at Montclair State University.

Peña was a former bilingual school psychologist for Jersey City schools and previously served as president of the Union City school board.

“This is an honor and a responsibility that I do not take lightly,” Bennett said following the swearing-in. “I will serve with sincerity, professionalism, and utilize my five decades of experience that I bring to this role on behalf of all the children in public schools in New Jersey.”

“I’m still pinching myself,” Peña said about her excitement for her new role.

Three people stand near a blue table where a person is sitting next to an American flag.
New Jersey Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy administers the oath of office to Jeannette Peña, of Union City, a new member of the state Board of Education. Mary Bennett, not pictured, was also sworn in at the board meeting on Jan. 17, 2024. (Catherine Carrera / Chalkbeat)

Members of the state school board serve six year terms and are appointed by the governor with confirmation from the state Senate. The board is supposed to have 13 members but has been down two members after recent resignations, and the remaining 11 members are sitting in expired seats.

Murphy has nominated six members to the board, but only Bennett and Peña have been confirmed by the Senate. Seven members currently on the board were appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, who left office in 2018, and four were appointed by previous administrations.

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Peña filled the seat formerly held by Ernest Lepore, who served from 2004 through 2022. Bennett replaced Mary Beth Gazi, who was appointed in 2017 and served one term.

The new members join the board as Allen-McMillan prepares to step down as acting education commissioner on Feb. 1. Wednesday was her last board meeting.

Reflecting on her three years in that role, Allen-McMillan said she’s proud of the work the department and board has done during the pandemic.

Board member Mary Beth Berry said she welcomes the new members’ “fresh perspectives.”

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s wonderful to think we can collaborate and do the very best for children of New Jersey,” Berry said.

Some of Bennett’s family members attended the swearing in ceremony, traveling from Newark on a blistering cold day to show their support.

“She’s been in education for so long and has so much knowledge to bring,” from her professional experiences and “as a mother and grandmother,” said Cynthia Breuton, Bennett’s cousin, of Newark. Breuton noted Bennett has long volunteered for various community organizations, including their church’s education ministry.

The state school board is responsible for setting rules and standards to implement state education laws, and supervising the state’s public schools. The board also advises on the education commissioner’s proposed policies and confirms state education department staff appointments.

The next meeting is scheduled for Feb 7.

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark. Reach Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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