New Jersey state school board nominees await confirmation to replace members with conservative views

A group of people sit at a long table with blue table cloth with a giant screen in the background and a group of people sitting in chairs in rows in the foreground.
Two New Jersey Board of Education members with socially conservative views would be replaced by Gov. Phil Murphy's nominations if they are confirmed on Friday when the state Senate convenes for a voting session. (Hannah Gross/NJ Spotlight News)

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The fight over “parental rights” on the New Jersey Board of Education is coming to a head as Gov. Phil Murphy gets closer to replacing one of the loudest opponents of recently updated sex education standards and the code for equity in schools.

Murphy’s nomination of Claudine Keenan, interim vice provost of Stockton University, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and could come up for a vote in the full Senate on Friday. Keenan would replace vice president Andy Mulvihill, whose supporters say has been a strong voice for “parental rights” on the board. Keenan cleared the judiciary committee without any Republican support earlier this month.

Keenan and Murphy’s other nominees have faced a tough line of questioning about the role of parents in schools, how and when gender identity should be taught to children and how to best racially integrate New Jersey schools. Groups promoting what they call “parental rights” in the state have urged their members to call their state senators to oppose the nominations of Keenan and Serena Rice, a pastor at Abiding Peace Lutheran Church. Rice would replace Jack Fornaro, who has voted with Mulvihill on many issues.

Both nominees could be confirmed by the full Senate on Friday following a long process. Rice cleared the judiciary committee in March but her nomination has not come up for a vote in recent Senate sessions.

The State Board of Education is a 13-member body tasked with adopting the administrative code, which sets the rules for implementing education law. Murphy has nominated at least eight people during his time in office. Only two were confirmed by the Senate and joined the board in January. That has allowed holdovers appointed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, or previous governors, to remain on the board and have a majority for Murphy’s six years in office.

Parental rights groups campaign to block new members

New Jersey Parental Rights and similar groups are calling on their supporters to help “Save Andy,” and keep Mulvihill on the board.

During a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, speakers from New Jersey Parental Rights and the New Jersey Family Policy Center said they opposed Keenan’s appointment because it would mean Mulvihill loses his seat on the board. Shawn Hyland, director of advocacy for the New Jersey Family Policy Center, suggested that Keenan replace another board member instead.

Mulvihill has served on the board for 12 years, opposing changes to part of the administrative code that discussed equity, including changing the word “equality” to “equity.” He also opposed the adoption of sex education standards that included gender identity and abortion.

This is what led to Murphy nominating replacements for him and the other board members who opposed the standards, Mulvihill said. He is one of the loudest voices in support of “parental rights” on the board, which he said means that parents should be informed and involved in their child’s education.

“Parents should be the ultimate decision-maker as to what’s in the best interest of their child,” he said.

Nominees face opposition from Republican lawmakers

During Keenan’s interview in the committee, Sen. Mike Testa (R-Cumberland) asked where she stands on the issue of parental rights, as defined by groups like the New Jersey Family Policy Center. Keenan said she believes in a parent’s role in education, such as through frequent parent-teacher conferences. Engaging with the school community helped her as a parent to children in New Jersey public schools, she told the committee.

Testa then asked her if she was reading a pre-prepared answer, to which Keenan responded yes. She said she has thought deeply about the question, which has also been asked of other nominees.

Keenan, who previously served as dean of education at Stockton University, has a strong background in the field. At Stockton, her role centered on preparing pre-service teachers to work in many South Jersey classrooms. This is something the state’s largest teachers union cited as a benefit in responding to the teacher shortage at the committee meeting.

Rice, who cleared the judiciary committee in March, faced similar opposition during her interview. She cleared the committee in a vote along party lines.

Rice said she believes in a high-quality education for every child, noting that she is a mother to two students, including one with an individualized education plan.

Some committee members scrutinized her social media posts, including one photo of Rice in a mask and another of the progressive Pride flag. Republican lawmakers called the posts “divisive” and said they are evidence of leftist views that could impede her ability to represent people she disagrees with as a board member.

Both nominees have the support of the New Jersey Education Association union, which is urging its thousands of members to contact lawmakers in support of the nominees.

Garden State Equality, a statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group, is also calling on supporters to ask their elected representatives to confirm Rice.

Other nominees in limbo, await action from Senate

Another Murphy nominee, James Williams, has yet to be interviewed by the judiciary committee after being referred in January. Williams is the director of racial justice policy at Fair Share Housing Center, which advocates for policies that promote racial and economic integration in housing. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Rutgers University in Camden.

The Democratic governor nominated another person, Ahmed Shehata, on June 20. Shehata is the assistant superintendent of business for Clifton Public Schools. He previously served on the Linden Board of Education.

Williams would replace Elaine Bobrove and Shehata would replace Fatimah Burnam-Watkins — who both voted to adopt the equity code.

Mary Bennett of Irvington joined the board in January, replacing Mary Beth Gazi, who opposed the equity code. Bennett serves as a teaching and learning mentor at Montclair State University and has held various roles in Newark schools.

Jeanette Peña of Union City replaced Ernest Lepore, who retired from the board in 2022, leaving the seat vacant. She is the educational director of special education and organizational accountability with the Union City schools.

Acting Commissioner of Education Kevin Dehmer is also awaiting confirmation by the Senate. His nomination was received and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 18. There has been no action taken since.

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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