N.J. education official Hespe to lead Burlington County College

Posted: August 09, 2012

The New Jersey commissioner of education under Gov. Christie Whitman has been named president of Burlington County College, effective Sept. 10.

David Hespe, now chief of staff for the current education commissioner, Chris Cerf, will succeed Robert Messina Jr., who ran the Pemberton-based college for 25 years before retiring this year.

Messina's $185,000 salary and perks were cited in a critical state comptroller's report last year. Hespe will be paid $175,000 in his new post.

"There are no little side goodies," said Joseph Malone 3d, chairman of the BCC board of trustees. "There was a pretty tough report put out by Matt Boxer's office about the extra frills" given to community college presidents across the state. "We are complying with the public's demands" for less lucrative salaries and no perks.

According to comptroller Boxer's report, Messina's contract called for the college to pay for his wife to travel with him to conferences as a "goodwill ambassador."

His salary matched the statewide average of $185,000 for community college presidents, but still was higher than the governor's.

Hespe, 52, of Belle Mead, Somerset County, currently is paid $138,500.

He said his new job was "a phenomenal opportunity" that would capitalize on his varied experiences in government and education.

"Looking at it over the past 25 years . . . I was rolling into this direction . . . to my last point on my resumé," he said.

Asked whether he might match Messina's quarter-century tenure at BCC, he said, "I hope so."

The college, which has an enrollment of 11,000 and a roughly $45 million operating budget, has satellite campuses in Mount Laurel, Mount Holly, and Willingboro.

His biggest challenge, Hespe said, will be to make BCC "accessible and affordable" to more students as the county and state cut funding. He also plans to "focus on partnerships with schools and businesses in the county" to help high school students prepare better for college and to help the college's graduates find jobs in the county.

Malone said Hespe was chosen from a field of 50 candidates: "Dave is a known quantity - people know him, trust him, and he has high integrity. . . . He has a wide range of experiences and background."

While education commissioner, between 1999 and 2001, he had oversight over controversial new standardized tests for students and had to address a state Supreme Court ruling that New Jersey had to do more for special-needs students.

Hespe, who earned a law degree from Rutgers University, also held posts as a first assistant attorney general and an assistant counsel responsible for all education and higher education matters that came before Whitman.

More recently, he served as an interim superintendent in the troubled Willingboro district from July 2009 to February 2011. There was infighting on the school board, and the previous superintendent had resigned shortly after he was hired.

Hespe got concessions and a wage freeze from the teachers' union to help address financial problems and agreed to a freeze of his own salary.

"I was needed to step into that role and engage the school on real turnaround efforts. . . . It was a challenging time for the district," Hespe said.

Hespe also is an adjunct professor at Rowan University, where he teaches educational leadership. When he moves to BCC, he said, he likely will begin teaching a course there.

"I like to keep my hand in teaching and learning," he said.

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com or @JanHefler on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz .

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