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A veteran official at the state Department of Education is Gov. Phil Murphy’s latest choice to become commissioner, his office announced Monday.

Kevin Dehmer has twice served as interim commissioner of education and held several roles in the department over 15 years, mostly in finance. He will replace acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, who is retiring on Feb. 1.

“Ensuring that New Jersey’s schools are ready to meet the ever-changing and evolving needs of our communities is crucial. Nobody is better prepared to meet this charge than Kevin,” Murphy said in a statement. “His wealth of experience in education policy and proven commitment to improving educational outcomes for all New Jersey students will make him an indispensable asset.”

Dehmer served as assistant commissioner and chief financial officer for the department for over five years, overseeing public school funding in New Jersey. Over his career, he has been involved in the state’s work on the School Funding Reform Act and the Abbott v. Burke decisions, decades of Supreme Court rulings that dictated how public education is paid for in the state.

“Thank you, Governor Murphy, for the opportunity to continue advancing our shared mission of uplifting our best-in-the-nation public schools to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed,” Dehmer said in a statement. “I look forward to reprising my role as commissioner in a more permanent capacity and getting to work on behalf of our students, educators, and our school communities.”

School aid, test scores top agenda

Dehmer’s financial background will likely be relevant to upcoming discussions about the school funding formula. In January, Murphy said there will be a significant increase in school aid in his upcoming budget.

“With years of experience in various finance roles within the department, Kevin will have the expertise to guide our schools through the final phase in of S2 and the phase out of federal pandemic relief funding,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said in a statement.

Dehmer will also be tasked with increasing early literacy rates and responding to a shortage of teachers and staff.

“All indicators show our next commissioner faces truly historic challenges as the state continues to grapple with how to support all students in meeting basic grade-level standards. Without question, time is of the essence,” Paula White, executive director of advocacy group JerseyCAN, said in a statement.

After leaving the Department of Education in 2022, Dehmer served as executive director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at the Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. He led a team of researchers focused on strategies to enhance workers’ skills and employment prospects.

Monday’s announcement marks Murphy’s second cabinet replacement in less than a week. On Friday, he shared his intention to nominate Francis K. O’Connor to serve as commissioner of transportation. Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, the outgoing commissioner, recently took on a new role as Murphy’s chief of staff.

Both must be confirmed by the state Senate.

Advocates, educators praise Dehmer

The immediate reactions from stakeholders to Murphy’s announcement of Dehmer have been overwhelmingly positive. Leaders of several key education groups said his deep experience in the department and his understanding of school finance will be crucial to his success.

Rich Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, applauded Murphy’s choice and said Dehmer is probably the top expert on school finance in the state.

“Kevin’s reputation precedes him and his depth of knowledge, experience and relationships throughout the state will serve him well in this role. In particular, his unparalleled understanding of school funding and all fiscal matters will be critical as we look to continue to get resources into our most educationally disadvantaged communities,” Harry Lee, president and CEO of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association, said in a statement.

Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said Dehmer is an excellent choice due to his experience in the department and smart, collaborative, and thoughtful leadership. The choice has already boosted the morale of educators across the state, she added.

“His deep understanding of the NJDOE will serve him well as he works to implement Gov. Murphy’s pro-public education agenda and to address the educator shortage crisis in New Jersey. It is imperative that he seek out the voices of practicing classroom educators who can bring authentic classroom perspectives to the policy discussions he will be leading,” NJEA president Sean M. Spiller, vice president Steve Beatty, and secretary-treasurer Petal Robertson said in a statement.

Karen Bingert, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said although Dehmer does not have direct experience in New Jersey schools, he has always been willing to ask questions and learn from educators who have spent time in the classroom.

“We stand ready to help the commissioner to be successful because the commissioner’s success is everyone’s success and that’s all that’s important. In the end, it’s about kids,” Bingert said.

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.