Murphy names his first State Board of Education nominees

By: - September 30, 2022 1:59 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy nominated three university officials to seats on the State Board of Education held by opponents of the state's sex education standards Thursday.(Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

Three nominations to the state Board of Education could become the next front in New Jersey’s fight over sex education.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday announced three new nominees to the board, the first he has made to the 13-member body since taking office, putting up a Rutgers University statistician, a Seton Hall University education consultant, and a Stockton University dean for seats held by three opponents of the state’s sex education curriculum.

“Each of the nominees brings to the table unique insight that will be invaluable as we continue on our mission to maintain New Jersey’s place as the best state for public education in the nation,” the governor said in a statement. “Not only do these nominees reflect the great diversity of our state, but their extensive experience and dedication to bettering the lives of students make them extremely qualified to serve on the Board.”

Kwanghee Jung, associate director for data management and statistics at Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research, Stockton Dean of Education Claudine Keenan, and Seton Hall Educational Consultant Mary Bennett must be confirmed by the Senate before taking their seats.

But the fact they were nominated to seats held by three of the four board members opposed to the state’s sex education standards could complicate their movement through the legislature.

Republican lawmakers and unelected allies have railed against New Jersey’s sex education standards since Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) posted a sample lesson plan online in April, charging instructional materials that included information on masturbation, pornography, and gender identity were overly sexual and not age-appropriate.

The following month, four members of the state board — President Kathy Goldenberg, Vice President Andrew Mulvihill, Mary Elizabeth Gazi, and Jack Fornaro — penned a letter to acting Secretary of State Angelica Allen McMillan urging her to rein in controversial topics and language in the state plan.

Fornaro is the only one of the four members, each of whom was nominated by former Gov. Chris Christie, whose seat would not be filled by one of Murphy’s nominees, and that’s raised some alarms for Schepisi.

“I do think it speaks volumes that they are the only ones who really voiced some of the concerns being echoed by parents, and it’s as if there’s no room for anybody to have a difference of opinion, so we’re going to replace those three,” she said.

The ire of an individual senator can be enough to halt a nomination, and Schepisi has the ability to do so here should she wish to invoke senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to unilaterally and indefinitely block gubernatorial nominees from their home county or legislative district.

As a resident of Essex County, Bennett isn’t at risk of a Republican stalling her nomination through an invocation of courtesy. Sens. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris) and Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic), the only Republicans representing portions of Essex, live outside the county.

Newly sworn-in Sen. Renee Burgess (D-Essex) represents Irvington, Bennett’s hometown.

Jung and Keenan aren’t quite so lucky. Jung lives in Teaneck, giving Schepisi courtesy over her nomination. The senator has not yet decided to invoke courtesy, saying she was still too unfamiliar with the nominee.

“I’m not going to rush to judgement on anything here,” said Schepisi, whose invocation of courtesy stalled the nomination of would-be New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Rachel Wainer Apter for nearly 18 months.

Jung might also have to worry about Bergen County’s Democratic senators if she backs the state’s sex education standards without qualification.

“I don’t see any red flags about why I wouldn’t sign off, but I do want to have a conversation about what I think my and my constituents’ expectations are from these board members,” Sen. Joe Lagana (D-Bergen) of the nominee. “I kind of fall into the category of not loving these new standards, having three young school-age children.”

The senator said he supports instructional units on gender identity and exclusivity but believed some sex education standards were not age-appropriate, adding he would not make a decision on courtesy until speaking with Jung.

As a Galloway resident, Keenan would need the sign off of two Republicans, Sens. Chris Connors (R-Ocean), who represents her district, and Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic), who lives in her county.

Polistina said he was still reviewing Keenan’s qualifications, adding Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman had given her a glowing review and that he looked forward to speaking with her directly.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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