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Top Democrat slams brakes on confirming Phil Murphy’s picks to lead education in NJ

Top Democrat slams brakes on confirming Phil Murphy’s picks to lead education in NJ
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New Jersey’s top lawmaker has slammed the brakes on the confirmation of Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominees to lead the two state agencies in charge of education and colleges in New Jersey.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday he’s not satisfied with answers that Murphy’s picks for state education commissioner and the secretary of higher education gave him as they wait to be confirmed.

It’s the latest flap between Murphy, the state’s new governor, and Sweeney, the fellow Democrat whom Murphy needs to install many of his initiatives. 

The Senate, the upper house the New Jersey Legislature, has to sign off on both nominees —  Lamont Repollet as state education commissioner and Zakiya Smith Ellis as the state’s higher education secretary.

Reppolet is the former superintendent of Asbury Park schools, while Smith Ellis was a White House education policy advisor to then-President Barack Obama.

Murphy vows to revamp N.J. school funding

Each have been serving in an acting capacity for months and can continue to do so.

But both have been approved by the state Senate Judiciary Committee and were expected to finally be confirmed when the full Senate holds a voting session Thursday at the Statehouse in Trenton.

Sweeney, though, said he never put them on the schedule.

He said he was bothered by how Repollet is approaching calls to rework the oft-criticized way New Jersey doles out state aid public school.

“When I heard that the (acting) commissioner of education said he needed six-to-eight months before we could come up with a fix for education funding, that was absolutely unacceptable,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told NJ Advance Media.

“As a former superintendent, he’s well aware what’s wrong and the administration is slow walking us in a solution to funding and it’s not acceptable,” Sweeney added.

Meanwhile, Sweeney said he gave Smith Ellis “a list of questions that I had concerns with, and the answers back were not sufficient.”

“They weren’t answers,” he said.

Richard McGrath, a spokesman for Sweeney, clarified that “we haven’t seen or heard the level of willingness needed to make progress” on school funding and making college more affordable in New Jersey. 

Mahen Gunaratna, the head of Murphy’s communication team, shot back in a statement. 

“The Senate president has unilaterally decided to hold up the confirmations of two highly qualified cabinet nominees, despite overwhelming support from the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Gunaratna said. “There’s no good reason why he’s standing in the way of their confirmations.”

While both Murphy and Sweeney belong to the same party, the two have had a largely frosty relationship since Murphy took office in January. Sweeney has also pushed back on Murphy’s plans to institute a millionaire’s tax and raise the sales tax to bring in new revenue to the state.

As for school funding, Sweeney wants to fully fund the state’s existing funding formula and remove all caps and limits on how much new aid a district can receive from one year to the next.

To achieve that, he’s willing to reallocate state aid from districts considered overfunded to districts considered underfunded. 

Murphy pledged to fully fund the formula during his campaign last year but more recently has talked of of working with lawmakers to revamp it — though he hasn’t gone into detail about how he would do that.

Murphy’s first state budget proposal does not continue the reallocation of aid Sweeney started last year, and his idea of “full funding” appears to include the caps and limits Sweeney wants to abolish. 

Sweeney’s plan would eventually call for about $1 billion more in school aid than Murphy’s.

“We need a fix now,” Sweeney said. “We’re not waiting to six-to-eight months and getting into another school year.”

Sweeney added that he expects the Senate to sign off on Repollet and Smith Ellis in the end.

“I don’t expect that they won’t get confirmed,” he said. “But I’m entitled to get my questions answered.”

NJ Advance Media staff writer Adam Clark contributed to this report.

Matt Arco may be reached at marco@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewArco or Facebook.

Brent Johnson may be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @johnsb01



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