Christie fires education chief Schundler after U.S. aid mistake

Gov. Christie: Never pledged a "mistake-free administration."
Gov. Christie: Never pledged a "mistake-free administration."
Posted: August 28, 2010

A $400 million mistake in New Jersey's application for federal education aid that led Gov. Christie to attack President Obama this week has brought down the state's top schools official.

Christie fired Education Commissioner Bret Schundler on Friday after the U.S. Department of Education released a video that showed Schundler had two opportunities to address the blunder in a meeting with federal officials but failed to do so.

On Wednesday, Christie said that although the federal grant application contained the wrong budget numbers, Schundler had corrected the mistake in a presentation to federal officials. Christie then belittled the Obama administration for denying the state Race to the Top funding over a "clerical error."

In a statement released Friday, however, Christie acknowledged that video evidence from that presentation was "not consistent" with what education officials had told him, and that he had "ordered an end" to Schundler's service.

"I never promised the people of New Jersey that this would be a mistake-free administration," Christie said in the statement. "I did promise that the people serving in my administration would be held accountable for their actions."

Schundler pushed back, telling the Associated Press late Friday that he had not misinformed Christie. "In fact, I was very direct with him that we didn't get the panel the numbers," he said.

Schundler produced printouts of e-mails he said showed he had accurately told the governor's public-relations office this week what happened at the meeting in question.

"We regret that Mr. Schundler continues to sully his own image by engaging in revisionist history," responded a Christie spokesman, who said Schundler went so far as to write U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan a letter in which he described making the clarification.

Christie offered no apologies to the president or to those who graded the state's application, whom he described as "mindless drones" earlier in the week.

The Obama administration scored the states applying for $4.4 billion in Race to the Top educational funding based on their plans for educational reforms. In one paragraph of New Jersey's application, a question about fiscal years 2008 and 2009 was answered with 2011 information.

As a result, the answer was given 0.2 of a point out of a possible five points. New Jersey was bumped out of contention by just three points. The top 10 states won money; New Jersey came in 11th.

After the winners were announced and the mistake was reported by the Newark Star-Ledger, Christie jumped out ahead of the controversy, taking responsibility for the gaffe while simultaneously blasting Obama as valuing "form over substance." He said the unnamed staff member who filled out the application would not be fired.

But the video that surfaced Thursday showed Schundler's team faced two questions about the incorrect answer at the Washington meeting.

Federal officials are heard saying they could not find information on school-funding numbers for 2008 and 2009. Schundler asks to return to the question later in the presentation, and his team members begin to look through large binders. When the question resurfaces, Schundler's group still has no response.

Christie mocked federal officials on Wednesday, saying, "If you're a normal thinking, breathing human being," then you ask for the right numbers. In Washington, he said, Schundler "gave them the '08 and '09 numbers."

After receiving the new information, Christie asked Schundler to resign, according to the AP, but he declined. Schundler, a former mayor of Jersey City who unsuccessfully ran for governor, said he requested to be fired so he could collect unemployment.

"I have a mortgage to pay and a daughter about to start college," he told the AP.

"I don't believe that education commissioners are interchangeable any more than governors are," Schundler said. "We could have been very successful at accelerating reforms in New Jersey."

It was not the first time that Christie had shown displeasure with Schundler, perhaps his most high-profile cabinet member.

Schundler - an outspoken advocate on issues that rankled teachers' unions, such as the expansion of charter schools - seemed a natural ally for Christie, who has characterized the unions as greedy in light of New Jersey's budget crisis.

But in initially crafting the most recent Race to the Top application, Schundler struck a compromise with the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, on issues including merit pay and tenure for teachers. In return, the union gave its support to measures outlined in the application, which was expected to bolster the state's chances.

Saying his top education official was not authorized to soften his education agenda, the governor surprised NJEA officials by voiding Schundler's compromise.

At Christie's news conference Wednesday, he repeatedly mentioned the NJEA. If the union had shown more willingness to agree with issues such as merit pay, he said, the state would have scored higher and a "clerical error" would not have mattered.

The NJEA shot back Friday, calling Schundler a "scapegoat" for New Jersey's loss.

"After days of blaming everyone from a 'mid-level employee' to the Obama administration to NJEA for his failed Race to the Top application, the governor continues to deny responsibility for shortchanging our public schools," union head Barbara Keshishian said in a statement.

Democrats were not placated by the firing either. Legislative hearings are planned, and Schundler will be invited to testify.

"If the governor thinks making Commissioner Schundler go away will make the many, many questions about how the state blew its $400 million chance go away with him, he's wrong," said State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester).

Rochelle Hendricks, assistant commissioner for the Division of School Effectiveness and Choice, will be acting education commissioner while a search for Schundler's replacement is conducted.


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.

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