Everyone’s talking about the exodus of experienced and qualified staff members at the Schools Development Authority, a product of nepotism directed by Murphy appointee Lizette Delgado-Polanco, who yesterday was accused of making “false statements” about her “restructuring” of the SDA, which oversees facilities renovation and construction in Abbott districts. USAToday reports that, following outrage from legislators, Murphy has “ordered roughly 50 independent authorities to turn over names and payroll information of employees in an effort to root out patronage in state government.” A former SDA staffer said that Delgado-Polanco’s “virtually nonexistent” managerial skills and “utter lack of personal integrity is propelling the SDA toward the precipice of bureaucratic disembowelment.”
The same evisceration of competency is happening right now at New Jersey’s Department of Education and no one says a word.
(Except me. What’s up with that?)
Maybe everyone in the DOE is afraid to speak up. Maybe their CWA union representatives (for staff members who haven’t been replaced with non-union staff) have been too busy negotiating the just-settled contract to take the multiple grievances seriously. Maybe NJEA leaders, who applaud the lowering of standards through the elimination of meaningful assessments for students and teachers and dictate Gov. Murphy and DOE Commissioner Repollet’s education agenda, are untouchable. Or maybe the full impact of the DOE’s dissolution — cancelling of mandated oversight, misallocations of federal funds, racism, privileging of loyalty over competence, mass firings, hiring of unqualified people, like this person who referred to students with disabilities as “morons” — won’t get attention until we start seeing the impact on the state’s 1.3 million students.
Or traditional media steps up. Looking at you, Star-Ledger and Gannett.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual at your DOE. High-level managers and directors of divisions with institutional knowledge are gone. A recent hire, Delgado-Polanco’s husband, former minor league baseball coach Enohel Polanco-Gonzalez, is now a DOE “community liaison” at a salary of $95,000 per year. Let’s not forget Repollet’s hiring of former Passaic Councilman Marcellus Jackson as a Special Assistant in the DOE Office of Civic and Social Engagement for $70,000 a year, even though Jackson was “prohibited from state employment because he had been convicted of public corruption.” (He’s since resigned.) One particularly poignant case (and I’m not using names) is a man who went to one of the worst high schools in New Jersey, got into an Ivy League university (where he excelled) and was abruptly fired when Repollet arrived from an undistinguished tenure in Asbury Park Public Schools. This person was replaced by a tech guy. So it goes.
That is, until the DOE is regarded by legislators and media as vulnerable to nepotism and corruption as the SDA.
Here’s an email that DOE staffers received yesterday from Repollet detailing a long list of promotions. I’m sure some of these people are great. And some are only on the list through systemic patronage that continues to undermine the Department’s ability to do what’s best for students and teachers.
March 7, 2019
Dear Fellow NJDOE Employees,
Several [sic: actually, 15] of your colleagues were officially appointed to their director positions by the State Board of Education yesterday. I’m delighted that they’re a part of our Department. Please read about their career accomplishments below.
Dr. Lamont O. Repollet, Commissioner of Education
Itunu Balogun, Director, Media Relations & Strategic Outreach
Itunu Balogun joined the New Jersey Department of Education as a communications manager in February 2018. She was promoted to acting director of the Media Relations and Strategic Outreach last May. During her tenure, Ms. Balogun has developed a streamlined process to communicate the Department’s goals internally and externally; she ensures I’m prepared for various internal and external meetings and events; she supports several program offices by creating cohesive messaging strategies through social media and other modes of communication. She and her team are working on developing an improved digital presence for the NJDOE.
Ashley Bencan, Director, Office of Strategic Operations
Ashley Bencan joined the New Jersey Department of Education in September 2012 as a special projects manager in the Office of Recruitment and Preparation. Her role changed over time to include policy development for educator preparation programs; facilitating and executing strategic planning and project management across the talent division; supporting the revision of the ESSA technical plan; learning the internal systems of the NJDOE and providing operational support for the Chief Talent Officer in procurement, staffing and communications.
In July 2018, Ms. Bencan was promoted to acting director of the Office of Strategic Operations. In this role, Ms. Bencan and her team specialize in operations mapping, project management and strategic planning, program evaluation, strategic and critical thinking, data analysis and data management, and elevating the intranet to be a knowledge management resource for all staff.
Carmen Cusido, Director, Office of Public Affairs
Carmen Cusido joined the New Jersey Department of Education in September 2018 as acting director of the Office of Public Affairs. In her role, she drafts speeches and testimonies; pitches story ideas to reporters; boosts our internal communications push; and works on special projects, including updating our internet, as needed.
Ms. Cusido most recently wrote a book, titled “Coping with Eating Disorders,” as part of an education series geared toward young adults. Her writing has appeared on CNN, NBC News, NPR, Cosmopolitan, New Jersey Monthly magazine, New York Daily News, and other outlets. She has been interviewed about eating disorders and U.S.-Cuba relations for ABC News, amNewYork, The Guardian and Univision.
Tanisha Davis, Director, Office of Recruitment, Preparation and Recognition
Tanisha Davis joined the New Jersey Department of Education in 2015. She was promoted to acting director in the Office of Recruitment, Preparation and Recognition (RPR) in September 2018.
In her current role, Ms. Davis’s work focuses on various aspects of New Jersey’s educator pipeline. Her office is responsible for leading recruitment initiatives including Diversifying the Teacher Workforce and Troops to Teachers. RPR develops and implements educator preparation programming policy, which includes educator preparation program review, approval, monitoring, support, data analysis and reporting. The office also coordinates educator recognition programs that honor excellent educators across the state and provides mentoring and induction guidance and support for districts and new teachers.
Kathleen Ehling, Director, Office of Fiscal and Data Services
Kathleen Ehling, Esq. has worked for the Department of Education for over 14 years. In her current role as director of the Office of Fiscal and Data Services, she oversees the administration of federal and state grant funds for the Division of Student Services.
Prior to this role, Ms. Ehling served as the Manager of the Bureau of Governance and Fiscal Support, Office of Special Education Policy and Procedure within the New Jersey Department of Education. In this capacity, she oversaw the implementation of administrative policy for the office, including development of regulations, model IEPs and the Parental Rights in Special Education booklet. Additional duties included coordinating submission of the State Performance Plan/Annual Performance Report and the State Systemic Improvement Plan to the United States Department of Education.
Gilbert Gonzalez, Director, Office of Assessments
Gilbert Gonzalez joined the New Jersey Department of Education in September 2016 as the Coordinator of Assessment Technology and Data for the Office of Assessments. In his current role as Director, his office oversees the administration of New Jersey’s State-wide Assessment Program and supports school districts in using the information obtained from New Jersey’s assessments to effectuate positive outcomes for students.
Prior to joining the Department, Mr. Gonzalez served as the Chief Information Officer for the Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional School District, where he oversaw the district’s educational technology initiatives and led the implementation of local and state computer-based assessments.
Jane A. Griesinger, Director, Office of Career Readiness
Jane A. Griesinger joined the New Jersey Department of Education in January 2016 as an education program development specialist. She was promoted to acting director of the Office of Career Readiness in September 2018.
In her previous role, Ms. Griesinger serves as the CTE Teacher Pathway Initiative Project Director and the STEM & Advanced Manufacturing Career Cluster Lead.
Susan Kutner, Director, Office of School Facilities Planning
Susan Kutner joined the New Jersey Department of Education in 2005.
In her current role as director of the Office of School Facilities Planning, Ms. Kutner is responsible for developing and administering reporting requirements, systems, and procedures for all New Jersey public school districts pertaining to school facilities planning and project advancement.
Jessica Merville, Director, Office of Performance Management
Jessica Merville joined the New Jersey Department of Education in 2016. In her role as data strategist, her responsibilities include managing the redesign of the annual School Performance Reports to align with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirements; conducting focus groups, meetings, and surveys with parents, educators, and other stakeholders; and developing the nomination plan and identifying nominees for the Blue Ribbon Schools Award.
Ms. Merville is also a data project fellow for the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.
Bernard Piaia, Director, Office of School Facilities
Bernie Piaia joined the New Jersey Department of Education in 2000.
In his current role as director of the Office of School Facilities, his responsibilities include ensuring school districts properly plan for the facilities needs of students and staff; oversee and review the approval of school facilities projects; oversee the development and implementation of rules and relations related to school facilities; oversee the New Jersey “Green Ribbon Schools” Program; and coordinate with other state agencies to ensure the efficient implementation of the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act.
Beverly Plein, Ph.D., Director, Office of Standards
Dr. Beverly Plein, a National Milken Educator and Google-Certified Teacher, joined the New Jersey Department of Education in 2008. In addition to serving as director for the Office of Standards, she is the social studies coordinator for the Division of Academics and Performance for the NJDOE.
During her time at the Department, Dr. Plein oversees multiple standards projects by supervising educator writing teams, seeking and integrating public feedback, and gaining approval of the New Jersey State Board of Education and provides support to teachers, administrators, parents, higher education faculty, government agencies, community groups, non-profit organizations, and business leaders regarding a wide range of educational topics, including technology integration in support of student learning.
Dominic Rota, Director, Office of Special Education Policy and Dispute Resolution
Dominic Rota, Esq. has worked for the New Jersey Department of Education for five years.
In his current role, Mr. Rota supports the Assistant Commissioner of Student Services in the development and implementation of goals, initiatives, and policies that align with the Department’s priorities for New Jersey’s students and schools.
Mr. Rota oversees the special education dispute resolution system, which includes mediation conferences, due process hearings; and compliant investigations. His office also conducts special education monitoring of school districts and approves clinics and agencies that provide services to students with disabilities
Kelly Williams, Ed.D., Director, Office of Student Support Services
Dr. Kelly Williams joined the New Jersey Department of Education in September 2018 as acting director in the Office of Student Support Services. In this role, Dr. Williams oversees the state’s safe and supportive school unit, New Jersey Tiered Systems of Supports, alternative schools, extended learning opportunities, student health, as well as social and emotional learning.
Previously, Dr. Williams served in the capacities of director, school leader, department chairperson, school counselor, and teacher in an urban school district.
Charles Wright, Ed.D., Director, Office of Innovation
Dr. A. Charles Wright joined the New Jersey Department of Education in 2006 in the Office of Title I and Program Accountability. His responsibilities included supervising the design, production and delivery of curricula, training, program improvement and related services to schools and local education agencies throughout the state to improve academic achievement with the usage of Title I, Part A funds.
He was promoted to acting director of the Office of Innovation in September 2018. In his role, Dr. Wright is responsible for leading special grant funded projects (currently, $13.7 million reallocation) that would provide additional extended learning opportunities for eligible districts and schools. Additionally, he is charged with ensuring districts and schools are leveraging their federal funding.
LaVar Young, Director, Office of Civic & Social Engagement
LaVar Young joined the New Jersey Department of Education in March 2018 as a member of the Strategic Operations team. Mr. Young was heavily involved in the Statewide Assessment Outreach connecting with over 2,500 stakeholders.
He was promoted to acting director of the Office of Civic & Social Engagement in September 2018. In his role, Mr. Young and his team develop key activities that strategically connect with the NJDOE’s key stakeholders. Most recently the Civic & Social Engagement team led the Department’s first Black History Month celebration. The office also supported Trenton Public Schools Rainbow drive to combat chronic absenteeism by connecting the district with a different district to share information and resources.