POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

SDA head faces committee over controversial hiring practices

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

It was the first time a legislative committee got to hear from Lizette Delgado-Polanco about her controversial hiring and firing practices at the Schools Development Authority, or SDA. She said when she got to the SDA last August the agency was understaffed. She wouldn’t talk about people’s qualifications.

“You need to understand when I walked in in August this was an agency that was severely understaffed and had not had changes in over eight years. We are budgeted for 257 positions, of which we are not occupying, I believe we’re at 232 or something like that. The conversations that we had as far as merit increases and everything else, yes, we are along lines with the 2% that folks received. But there was a lot of factors walking into this authority for eight years that was severely understaffed to be able to carry out the work,” she said. “When I walked in, I worked within the budget that we had. I didn’t go and spend the extra money for 2018. I worked within the allotted and the budgeted positions that were within our budget.”

“I can talk to you about the overall idea behind the restructuring, but I can’t talk to you about individuals and people that were terminated because that is under review by counsel, and I apologize,” Delgado-Polanco added.

“Multiple reports have been written about the lack of experience and qualifications of many of your employees, and this is a significant question for us as a budget committee. We’re talking about a $29.2 million budget, which is a 11 percent increase from 2018 to 2019. So these questions need to be asked and we need to have answers, please. But they appear to have a clear connection to you as family, as friends, as former colleagues, and we’re going to give you the benefit of a doubt that it wasn’t pure nepotism, but why were certain people hired who clearly weren’t prepared for the SDA positions?” asked Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz.

“Again, this is a matter that’s under review by counsel and I cannot discuss it at this moment. I apologize,” said Delgado-Polanco.

Earlier in the day, Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet was asked why we aren’t running our public schools like the successful charter schools.

“What are they doing differently that we’re not doing in the public schools that cause their outcome to be different,” asked Assemblyman John Burizchelli.

“Well, that’s a local control. I think certain districts do amazing things. In all 21 counties, I’ve been walking around seeing some amazing best practices. I’ve also been to some charter schools and I think that’s the beauty of having local control, right? Based on the needs in your particular area and what do you do? So I’m very pleased to say that we’re number two in the country because we have quality educators and our students do a phenomenal job. And we have a variety of educational environments for our students — charter, renaissance, traditional, vocational, and also choice in magnet — so the fact that we have this cornucopia of all these educational opportunities for our students is a good thing for us. And I don’t think there’s an elixir, or a silver bullet, or one-size-fits-all in regards to which one is doing better. They’re all doing great in my mind. And those individuals that are not doing well, then it’s up to our accountability system to ensure that they’re providing a thorough and efficient education, but a quality academic environment for our students.

“I would think if there’s a better model to be found through our public schools, we should be emulating it considering we’re spending 37% of our state budget to run public schools. There should never be a reason where a parent would want their child anywhere else than a New Jersey public school. And if these operations are doing it better, and parents are in waiting lists to get there, then we should understand what’s happening there and we should spend more attention to figuring out how to make our public schools better,” said Burizchelli.

The controversy arose out of a series of articles in The Bergen Record. The Governor’s Office has the situation under review.