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Fight brewing over Board of Ed nominee’s Senate hearing

Mary Bennett’s nomination was delayed yesterday, drawing criticism from NAACP, NJEA

By Joey Fox, January 31 20231:39 pm

Mary Bennett, one of Gov. Phil Murphy’s nominees for the New Jersey State Board of Education, was scheduled to appear yesterday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first step towards her eventual confirmation to the 13-member statewide board.

But at the last minute, Bennett, an educational consultant for the Seton Hall University Academy for Urban Transformation and a former Newark high school principal and English teacher, was pulled from consideration. And it looks as though her eventual hearing, which will likely take place at the next Judiciary Committee meeting in February, could become a proxy war for larger debates over New Jersey’s educational standards.

The reason for the delay was Bennett’s involvement in the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, an organization that is part of an ongoing school desegregation lawsuit, the New Jersey Globe has learned. Bennett had not disclosed her connection to the organization on her Senate questionnaire; Committee Chair Brian Stack (D-Union City) pulled her nomination temporarily at the request of Republican senators after the affiliation was uncovered.

When Bennett does appear before the Judiciary Committee, it’s likely she’ll face sharp questioning from Republicans over sex education and school desegregation – topics that are likely to play a major role in this year’s legislative elections.

But two powerful organizations, the NAACP and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), are preempting that offensive with a joint statement decrying the delay of Bennett’s nomination.

“I fail to see any credible reason why Mary Bennett’s nomination was held,” NAACP State President Richard Smith said. “She has been a voice for urban schools and the families they serve for decades… Ms. Bennett knows and takes seriously the constitutional obligations the state has to educate every New Jersey student.”

Bennett, alongside Kwanghee Jung and Claudine Keenan, was nominated by the governor in September 2022; if confirmed, the trio would be the first Murphy-nominated members of the board, whose 13 current members are all on holdover status after being nominated or renominated by former Gov. Chris Christie.

Jung and Keenan have yet to receive signoff from State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-River Vale) and State Sen. Vince Polistina (R-Egg Harbor), respectively, preventing their nominations from reaching the Judiciary Committee at all. (As an Irvington resident, Bennett had less trouble getting senatorial courtesy from her home county senators, all of whom are Democrats.)

“After five years without a single new appointment to the State Board of Education, NJEA was looking forward to Mary Bennett being the first new NJSBOE member confirmed since Governor Murphy took office,” NJEA President Sean Spiller said. “She is exactly who we need on the board right now… We call on the Judiciary Committee to set another meeting right away to confirm both her and the other two nominees recently put forth by Governor Murphy.”

Bennett, Jung, and Keenan were nominated to replace three board members who voted against the state’s new educational standards in June 2020, standards which were the initial impetus for the ongoing controversy over sex education and LGBTQ topics in New Jersey schools.

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