Schundler blames Christie for loss of $400 million in schools aid

Bret Schundler said he hadn't misled Christie about missing data.
Bret Schundler said he hadn't misled Christie about missing data.
Posted: October 08, 2010

Gov. Christie sacrificed points on New Jersey's application for $400 million in federal schools aid rather than appear to give in to the state's largest teachers union, his former education chief testified Thursday.

In an appearance under subpoena before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee, Bret Schundler said Christie made "a bad decision" when he insisted on scrapping compromises with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) that had won the union's support for the state's Race to the Top grant application.

The lack of union buy-in to the proposal cost the state at least 14 points on the application's 500-point scale, Schundler estimated. New Jersey's bid failed by three points.

As he has done repeatedly in the past, Schundler acknowledged making the editing error that deleted needed financial data from the application and cost the state 4.8 points.

Christie fired Schundler on Aug. 27, claiming he lied about later trying to supply correct information to federal application reviewers. On Thursday, Schundler reiterated that he had not misled the governor.

Shortly before the Aug. 25 news conference in which Christie lambasted the Obama administration for not accepting the added information after the forms were submitted, Schundler said he pointedly told the governor that he had not supplied the missing data.

According to the contest's rules, it would not have been allowed, Schundler has said.

In Christie's blistering attack on the grant administrators, he twice stated that Schundler gave reviewers what they needed during the state's presentation in Washington in mid-August.

The Obama administration then released a videotape of the state's presentation that showed Christie was wrong.

"In my defense," Schundler said, "I never believed I needed to say, 'Governor, stick to the truth. There's a videotape.' "

Schundler's testimony on Thursday detailed what has been portrayed by Education Department staff as a frenzied Memorial Day weekend, when Christie reportedly had the state's grant application altered to delete compromises with the teachers union on merit pay and the weight of seniority in labor force reductions.

Schundler portrayed his old boss as a politician preoccupied with not appearing soft toward his union nemesis.

Schundler had kept Chief of Staff Richard Bagger abreast of his talks with the NJEA, he said, so he was "surprised" when Christie called and "loudly expressed his unhappiness with the agreement."

The compromises had been minor, he said, and included things such as substituting the word bonus for merit pay in the application and having bonus money directed to schools to distribute.

According to Schundler, the governor said a central New Jersey radio talk-show host accused Christie of having "caved in" to the NJEA. The governor said the union had "demeaned" him, Schundler recalled.

Schundler said he tried to convince Christie that the compromises, which had been announced by the Department of Education and widely publicized, were not substantial and that the grant would enable Christie to implement nearly all of his education agenda.

Not surprisingly, the Christie administration took a dim view of Thursday's proceedings.

"The Democrats' hearing today is the worst kind of political theater Trenton has to offer," Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said in a statement.

"It's another diversionary sideshow conducted at the expense of New Jerseyans who want real, immediate action on important reform measures that have otherwise been stalled in the Legislature," he said.

The tone of Democrats' and Republicans' questions to Schundler was markedly different. Before testimony began, Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) and Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union) sparred over procedural issues. At one point, Buono, chairwoman of the committee, suggested she might have Kean removed from the room.

In a statement issued later on Thursday, Buono called it "unconscionable that $400 million for our schools took a backseat to politics."

NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer pronounced it "a devastating day for the governor's office."

Schundler's testimony, he said, confirms "that given a choice between politics and sound policy, [Christie] chooses politics every time."

Representatives for Wireless Generation, the consultant hired to oversee the grant application, had previously refused to testify. Some, including Schundler, have said that the consultant should have caught the data error.

Like Schundler, the Wireless official present at the hearing was under subpoena, but the proceeding ended before his testimony. Buono said the hearing would reopen later.

Thursday's was the third legislative hearing held on the Race to the Top application. Before ending his testimony, Schundler encouraged legislators to enact Christie's education agenda.

"The most important thing we can do is implement the reforms we were seeking the money to implement," he said.

Reached at his home on Wednesday, Schundler - a former mayor of Jersey City and top administrator at King's College in New York City - said he had "been doing a bit of a career search" since his dismissal.

At the time, Schundler said that Christie wanted him to resign but that he refused because he wanted to be able to collect unemployment benefits. That has not happened, he said.

"I was instructed by the Department of Labor that commissioners do not qualify," Schundler said.

Labor spokesman Kevin Smith declined to comment on Schundler's case but said: "I think in the past, people at that level were not provided unemployment."

An applicant also would need to show that he lost his job through no fault of his own, he said.


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.

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