This post is the start of a series. I don't know how many parts it will eventually be. Guess that depends on how long Democratic elected officials at the state and federal levels continue to make bone-headed moves like this...
Guest post by Susan Cauldwell Carlsson, Executive Director of Save Our Schools NJ.
The NJ Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Senator Nick Scutari (pictured with Senate President Steve Sweeney), conducted two very shady hearings on Governor Christie’s nominees to the State BOE. These hearings exposed how broken our legislative process is, and how power is concentrated in just a few legislators, like the Senate President. The public, rank and file legislators, and democracy are the losers in Trenton. Accountability and transparency are nearly non-existent.
On May 25th, the Judiciary Committee, upon the recommendation of the Governor, voted to remove State Board President Mark Biedron, and State Board VP Joe Fisicaro. Their replacements are the Governor’s former law partner, who has no background in public education, and a Moorestown BOE member, an ally of the Senate president. This nominee apparently did not understand that she could not keep her local board seat while serving on the State BOE! A third member, former teacher Edie Fulton, was also scheduled to be removed, but an incredibly sloppy background check on her replacement scuttled that for now. To date, no explanation has been given for their removal. We can only posit that this is retribution for these members' independent actions, that have obviously not pleased the Governor and/or Senate President.
Three SOSNJ members questioned the timing of these actions, given that the very unpopular governor has just seven months left on his term and is no friend of public education. We suggested the existing State BOE remain in place until the next Governor is seated. We also questioned why nominees are not being interviewed publicly, as has been past practice.
All our requests were denied. Chairman Scutari twisted himself into a pretzel trying to explain why he did not need to interview nominees publicly, all under the watchful gaze of Senate President Sweeney, who just happened to be sitting on the dais for the hearing.
Last Thursday, it was deja vu all over again. This time, the Judiciary Committee voted to approve Governor Christie’s request to give five current members of the state board new 6-year terms. The Senate President again dropped into the hearing. Senator Scutari DECLINED to take public testimony and called for a vote on the nominees, even though two SOSNJ members had signed up to testify. The voting had begun and was nearly concluded when one of our members requested to be heard. Reluctantly, Senator Scutari agreed to hear us. We again questioned the timing of these appointments and requested that nominees be required to appear in public and be interviewed by the Committee.
Our testimony caused two Senators to change their vote. Unfortunately, several Judiciary Committee members had left the hearing early, and did not hear our testimony. In the wacky world of Trenton politics, members can let the committee chair know their vote on a matter if they are not present when the vote is taken, and the vote is counted and entered in to the record. We wonder if our testimony would have changed others' minds.
We thank Senators Gill, Weinberg, and Pou for listening to and considering our testimony.
Do you think State BOE members should be interviewed in public? Does the public deserve to hear the qualifications and beliefs of a board that is responsible for the education of more than one million school children? We think so. We urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to take its responsibility seriously and call on the full Senate to reject all nominees until a new Governor is seated in January 2018.