New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on June 14 virtually met with AFTNJ PreK-12 and higher education leaders to discuss the future of education in the state.

“I want to make sure I say this up front: I don’t take our partnership, your support for granted for one second, and I would love the opportunity to earn your endorsement for our reelection,” Murphy said in his opening comments. “We have the No. 1 ranked public education system in America, and that does not happen by accident. It begins with great teachers, and we have the best in the nation.”

Questions for Murphy were presented by AFTNJ President Donna M. Chiera, and in her first one, she asked Murphy how he would ensure that college presidents follow through with bringing labor to the table on such decisions as reopening and the investment of federal funds.

“While we’ve may have made progress here or there, we still have a long way to go,” Murphy said. “The private discussions that we have as it relates to labor with these university and college presidents is unvarnished. It’s up to me to make sure that those aren’t just strong, frank words, but that an action on things like reopening, funding, etc. — that an action, you’re at the table. … I’ll do everything I can to turn that into a reality.”

Regarding who is accountable for making sure management invests in student services and personnel issues, not pet projects, Murphy said, “At the end of the day, the buck stops with me. … By the way, that’s the way it should be. … And below me, it’ll stop with [acting New Jersey Department of Education commissioner] Angelica [Allen-McMillan] in the PreK through 12 side and [New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education] Brian [Bridges] in the higher ed side. … Building up the head count that doesn’t have any interaction with the students is not what this is about. We want to have more bodies at the point of attack, not fewer.”

Chiera’s third question focused on what investments are in store for four-year institutions, so those entities “don’t start declining a little because of the attention, the funding and the services” that recently went to New Jersey’s community colleges.

I have to say … we threw a lot at the Community College Opportunity Grant,” Murphy said. “We’d seen too much evidence of folks who could not go at all [to college] or went and had to take classes at the margins of their life because they couldn’t afford it, and they were working two or three jobs. … I want to now put that program into the four-year context — something we put into our budget called the Garden State Guarantee. … I want to continue to invest in both the two-year and the four-year research universities or otherwise. In terms of what, I think it will depend on the institution. My guess is it will look different in different places.”

He added, “Too many potential students, particularly in communities of color, have been shut out of higher education in New Jersey for too long, and we will continue, as long as I’m around, to put resources toward turning that reality around and into a better place.”

In addition to her main questions, Chiera proposed having Kean University President Dr. Lamont O. Repollet be the official mentor to incoming Montclair State University President Dr. Jonathan Koppell (Murphy: “That’s a great suggestion”), and she pushed to have consumer sciences and industrial arts courses back in middle schools (Murphy: “I like that a lot”).

Over the next four years, should he win a second term as governor, “Maybe periodically we can bring the team together and have some more conversations directly with you,” Chiera said to Murphy.

“I like the idea of some regular cadence of bringing us together,” Murphy said.

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