After two years, Lamont Repollet will be leaving the post as New Jersey’s education commissioner to become president of Kean University, a move that takes him from today’s unprecedented challenges in K-12 education to maybe even steeper ones in higher education.

Kean University’s board of trustees voted without dissent last night to appoint Repollet to the president’s position, replacing retiring president Dawood Farahi. The board said Repollet would start at the end of June.

The appointment had been in the works for months, with Repollet’s potential move an open secret since word got out in February that he — himself a former Kean trustee — was a finalist for the $360,000-a-year college presidency.

A former Asbury Park superintendent and Carteret high school principal, Repollet has served as Gov. Phil Murphy’s schools chief since the beginning in 2018.

No stranger to adversity

It has been a mixed couple of years for the commissioner, who had to deal with tough issues like student testing and school funding, but he won only praise from Murphy and others last night.

“When I sought this office, I said my Commissioner of Education would fully understand the challenges students and educators face in their classrooms, because I would choose someone who came from the classroom,” Murphy said in a statement released within minutes of the vote. “Dr. Repollet has provided that leadership.”

Nonetheless, turnover can be frequent in a $175,000-a-year Cabinet post that is arguably the state’s highest-profile. And the current challenges of the job under the pandemic were as difficult as any for Repollet, as they will be for the next commissioner. All state’s schools will remain closed and relying on remote instruction for the rest of the academic year, and their reopening in September is not certain.

Repollet’s 700-employee department is charged with guiding the transition for districts, but there remain wide divides in the technology available to students for virtual learning, and steep state aid cuts are all but certain to come.

New Jersey State Board of Education President Kathy Goldenberg in a statement last evening wished Repollet well, saying his tenure as commissioner was “always with eye towards equity in education.”

“While it is a difficult time for public education and schools throughout New Jersey, we will continue to navigate these unprecedented challenges with the leadership of our Governor and the support of our dedicated Department of Education members,” she said in a statement.

Marie Blistan, the president of the powerful New Jersey Education Association, said the commissioner had worked well with the teachers union and other stakeholders — and asked his successor do the same.

“He has listened to the voices of educators, and we have had a good partnership in our efforts to help keep New Jersey public schools moving forward,” Blistan said, also in a statement.  “We hope his successor will be as thoughtful, collaborative, and committed to New Jersey’s students as he has been.”

Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, also cited Repollet’s focus on equity issues.

“Dr. Repollet has consistently demonstrated a genuine concern about children and their education,” Feinsod said. “As commissioner of education, he has guided the conversation about public education toward the critical issues of equity and students’ emotional wellbeing.”

Still, the 49-year-old Repollet is moving to a college that is also struggling under the weight of the pandemic, with Kean facing a potential $20 million deficit this fiscal year and $15 million the next, officials said.

‘Difficult and very unpleasant decisions’

“There are some very difficult and very unpleasant decisions to be made,” Farahi said last night as the board opened its May meeting online.

The outgoing president said he is expecting $7.8 million in cuts as the year closes, with popular programs on the chopping block. Farahi also leaves a controversial record behind after 17 years, especially in his strained relations with faculty.

Several faculty and other advocates in testimony last night implored the board to reconsider its budget decisions and wait until the new president was in place.

“Rather than scaring students during this time with program cuts, let’s reassure them,” said James Castiglione, president of the Kean Federation of Teachers.

The union afterwards nonetheless called Repollet the “right choice.”

“We are pleased that the board of trustees has selected someone who is committed to public education and believes in true collaboration,” Castiglione said.

Repollet did not attend the meeting last night but released a statement soon after, saying he welcomed the challenges ahead at a university from which he received his master’s degree 20 years ago.

“I was attracted to returning to my alma mater because the mission of Kean University mirrors my focus as education commissioner: to provide all students, regardless of where they live or their background, with the greatest opportunities for success in life,” he said.