Phil Murphy: NJEA Didn’t Make Me Fire Education Official

Murphy called questions about whether the NJEA was involved in the decision to fire Paula White "ridiculous."

Phil Murphy. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday that the state’s largest teacher’s union didn’t make him fire a senior education official the same day she was given the job, calling questions about whether the union was involved in the decision “ridiculous.”

“I make decisions on who works for us on our team, and nobody else,” Murphy said during an unrelated news conference in Dayton. “I make decisions. Period. Full stop.”

Murphy, a Democrat, was responding to questions about Paula White, a charter school advocate who was recently approved by the state Board of Education to be the department’s next assistant commissioner, only to have the job offer rescinded hours later.

White is a former state director of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a group that occasionally clashes with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the powerful teacher’s union that backed Murphy’s candidacy for governor. DFER advocates for public charter schools, while the NJEA has called for a moratorium on expanding charter schools.

White, who sent Observer a statement on Tuesday but declined to be interviewed, told NJTV on Friday that “it did cross my mind” that her conflicting policy positions with the NJEA could have played a role in the decision to rescind her job offer.

“We take a very agnostic approach to the kinds of public schools that exist, but the NJEA doesn’t do that,” she said in the NJTV interview. “To what extent that played into the decision, I’m really not sure, but it is really a fact that there is some tension there, certainly in political opinions.”

Murphy said Tuesday that White was simply not suited for the job. He didn’t answer a follow up question on why she got the job in the first place.

“Not consistent with my views of where we’re going to take education in this state,” he said of White.

A Murphy spokesman said departments are staffing up quickly in the fledgling administration and said White’s nomination for the assistant commissioner job had not been approved by the governor’s office. The NJEA had nothing to do with the decision to fire White, the Murphy spokesman said.

A NJEA spokesman did not return a request for comment.

“I am grateful to Governor Murphy for addressing this situation today,” White said in a statement. “I stand by my work, which reflects the educational legacy of President Obama, and aligns with my lifelong commitment to expanding opportunities for all children. I look forward to working with this administration, where I can, to provide New Jersey’s students with the highest-quality public education possible.”

White was most recently the chief turnaround officer for the DOE, where she led school improvement strategy for 200 schools, according to a biography on her website. She helped open a charter school in Newark and served on a state charter school task force.

She told NJTV that acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet asked her to join his executive team at the DOE and that the state Board of Education unanimously approved her for the assistant commissioner role. While driving back home from the board meeting, Repollet called her to rescind the job offer, she said in the NJTV interview.

Repollet, who was also at Tuesday’s news conference, declined to comment.

White’s hiring and quick firing was first reported by Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran, who wrote that the teacher’s union “seems to have a brass ring firmly hooked into the new governor’s nose.”

Murphy’s ties to the NJEA became an issue during last year’s gubernatorial campaign, when he refused to publicly criticize the union for spending millions of dollars in a failed bid to oust Senate President Steve Sweeney, a fellow Democrat. Phil Murphy: NJEA Didn’t Make Me Fire Education Official