I spent a rather surreal day at NJ Senate's Judiciary Committee meeting yesterday. This Committee, headed by Democrat Nick Scaturi, is responsible for approving nominations of judges and members of various pubic boards - everything from Rutgers to the Delaware River Authority - including the NJ State Board of Education (SBOE). The Committee has been "interviewing" and passing nominees on for a full Senate vote.
Yesterday was a bit of an eye-opener. Apparently, "interviewing" is a euphemism for thanks for coming to see us, or some version of that, followed by yes votes to move them along for a full Senate vote. To be fair, particularly in the case of the judges, these are people who have worked hard in their careers and are undoubtedly qualified to do the job they've been appointed for, but that's not the point of a public interview. That's in place for all of us, the taxpayers and constituents of this state.
There have been two Judiciary Committee meetings in the last few weeks. Members of Save Our Schools NJ have been there to protest the lack of transparency in the SBOE appointment process. Susan Cauldwell wrote about those two Committee meetings here.
Why, then, were the SBOE nominees not interviewed? Senator Scutari explained that the Committee doesn't have to. Well, since the Senate decides on how the nominees are handled, "doesn't have to" doesn't cut it. There is little transparency, and frankly, no checks or balances on the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE), so knowing who is being appointed is kinda important.
At this Committee meeting, three of us testified in complaint of the complete lack of transparency in this process. Given that education makes up about one third of New Jersey's budget and the SBOE is gatekeeper of how that money is spent, you'd think these Senators would want to know who the nominees are.
As you watch the video of our testimony, please note a few things: 1. Several Senators, including the Chair, Nick Scutari, walked away; 2. Senator Weinberg, Senate Majority Leader, is interrupted by Senator Scutari and he immediately moves to end her effort to have the nominees appear before the Committee; and 3. None of them appear to have any idea what the full term length of a SBOE member is, nor whether the nominees will only be fulfilling the remaining time on the seats they are being given. It's the latter, thank goodness, but please, is it too much to ask that the Committee members do the most basic of homework before blowing off multiple requests over the last month to have the nominees appear for "interview"?
Why would any Democrat (yes, that includes Senator Sweeney, who at least this time didn't stick around to make sure his boys did what they've apparently been told to do) want to do the bidding of Governor Christie at this last stage of his service when many of these seats have been open for YEARS?
What's the rush? Is this about the Budget? The grandstanding around the State House over the education budget has been going on for months. There appears to be a truce between Assembly Speaker Prieto and Senate President Sweeney. However, I'll remind them both that their deal completely excludes students with disabilities - no change to the census-based funding formula and no extra money for extraordinary aid.
Is this about pushing through the charter school regulations? Both Mark Biedron, former SBOE President, and Joe Fisicaro, SBOE Vice-President, opposed those regulations and appear to have been removed because of that opposition.
As the voting to move the SBOE nominees out of Committee ensued, Senator Bob Smith, also a Democrat, made a comment about the three SBOE nominees on their agenda. First, he thought there were only two nominees (the third was listed on the last page of the agenda which he apparently didn't see or know about), before launching into a rebuke about how the nominees "are not schlubs". Yes. He said that. Watch the video. He said it repeatedly, also noting they all have education-related experience. In Smith's world, none of the judges should have appeared for "interview" either because they certainly aren't "schlubs."
In the case of yesterday's nominees, they did have education-related experience. However, their experience conveys nothing about their opinion on public education issues which are regularly addressed by the State Board of Education. However, the argument we have is about PROCESS not CONTENT. His comments did not address process. Although, content should also concern everyone, and here are a couple of examples why:
I would love to know what Bob Smith thinks about other nominees from the last two Judiciary Committees hearings who also sailed through with no "interview" and included Andy Mulvihill, a returning SBOE member, who is CEO of Crystal Springs Resort Real Estate. He builds/owns golf courses and resorts. No education background at all. His bio on his company's website mentions other associations, but not NJ State Board of Education. I'm not sure that qualifies Mulvihill as a "schlub" in Senator Smith's parlance, but if I were Smith, I'd have a ton of questions about why he's sitting on that board.
Also included in the waving through of nominees was Mary Elizabeth Gazi, Esq., a former colleague of Governor Christie, whose practice is "representation of healthcare professionals in medical malpractice litigation and on products liability and general liability defense." The rest of her bio can be found here. No education background that I could discern either. So is she a "schlub"? Would it have been worth finding out why Gazi wants to be on the SBOE? I think so. It sounds like she's a successful litigation attorney, but has no experience in public education.
One of yesterday's nominees is a former special education teacher and founded a track team for Special Olympics of NJ. That's all great and I would encourage parents whose children had Mary Beth Berry for a teacher weigh in on their experiences with her. On the one hand, it would be great to have a special education advocate on the Board. There isn't currently anyone with that background serving. However, she has not been in the public sphere, that I can find, advocating for students with disabilities. If I'm wrong about that, please let me know. I would love to know where she stands on many issues related to special education. I can't believe our State Senators aren't even curious enough to ask and what's more, think it's a good idea to berate us for asking them to interview these candidates publicly!
You need a scorecard to keep track of who is on and off the Board. As it stands now, they have 11 of the 13 seats filled. Edie Fulton, so far, has not been removed as her replacement's (Nina Washington) nomination was withdrawn. Angel Cordero's nomination was also withdrawn and replaced with Mary Beth Berry.
As usual, our kids deserve so much better than this. I hope the women of Senate Judiciary Committee continue to ask for public interviews. My thanks especially to Senator Weinberg and Senator Gill for continuing to fight for public education.