BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie Friday fired state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler after he refused to resign in the aftermath of the administration losing its bid to collect $400 million in federal Race to the Top education aid.
"I was extremely disappointed to learn that the videotape of the Race to the Top presentation was not consistent with the information provided to me by the New Jersey Department of Education and which I then conveyed to the people of New Jersey,'' Christie said in a statement released by the governor's office. "As a result, I ordered an end to Bret Schundler's service as New Jersey's Education Commissioner and as a member of my administration.
"As I have said before, I never promised the people of New Jersey that this would be a mistake-free administration,'' Christie added. "However, I did promise that the people serving in my administration would be held accountable for their actions. As I said on Wednesday, I am accountable for what occurs in my administration. I regret this mistake was made and will do all I can to have my administration avoid them in the future."
Schundler told The Star-Ledger that he asked Christie to fire him from the position he considered his "life's dream,‘' rather than resign, to enable him to received state unemployment benefits to pay his bills."I asked if they would mind writing a termination letter, instead of a resignation letter, because I do have a mortgage to pay, and I do have a daughter who's just started college,‘' he said. "And frankly, will need the unemployment insurance benefits until I find another job ... And they said fine. They said sure.'' The administration finished 11th and just out of the money in the national Race to the Top competition that involved most of the states and the District of Columbia. Because of the Department of Education failing to answer a question correctly, New Jersey finished three points behind Ohio and the Buckeye State collected $400 million.
Christie announced Wednesday Schundler had assured him that the application mistake had been clarified in a presentation before federal education officials but a tape of the appearance made public Thursday, showed the problem was not corrected.
Schundler, a one-time Republican darling and a former Jersey City mayor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, had the most recognizable name as Christie formed his administration early this year and they had the same views on handling public education in New Jersey.
Schundler told The Star-Ledger he is "tremendously disappointed'' about leaving the administration. He added that he "thought the governor and I were a good team.''
A report filed by Schundler with the State Ethics Commission states that he and his wife have less than $5,000 in the bank. Over the past 12 months, he reported making between $50,000 and $100,000 at his two previous jobs as education commissioner and chief operating officer of The King's College, a Christian liberal arts school in New York City. His wife, Lynn Schundler, a lawyer, reported making between $25,000 and $50,000 at her job. The Schundlers stated that the home they are buying in Jersey City is valued at more than $500,000.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver said she also intends to invite Schundler to the Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing on the Race to the Top issue.
Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) said she will invite Schundler to testify before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee when it convenes to look into the missteps that doomed the Race to the Top application.
The hearing will be held Sept 23.
On Thursday, Buono filed a request through the Open Public Records Act for all documents related to the application. She said the goal of the hearing will be to ensure that, going forward, similar applications are handled with proper and adequate oversight before being submitted.
"Commissioner Schundler's firing has taken this controversy down an entirely new path,'' Buono said. "His dismissal opens up new avenues of questions to this administration that need to be answered. I will invite Mr. Schundler to come to testify before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee so we can hear first-hand how this entire disturbing and embarrassing episode came to be. I look forward to hearing the unfiltered truth."
Following the firing, Assemblywoman Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) said, "New Jerseyans have lost confidence in the state's education leadership, so a change is appropriate. The attempts to blame others for this mistake must now stop. We also continue to have many unanswered questions about this $400 million mistake.
"New Jerseyans deserve an honest accounting from Governor Christie about what truly happened with this costly error,'' Oliver said. "Thus, I expect full cooperation from the executive branch as the Assembly moves forward with its inquiry into this lost funding opportunity."
The Assembly Appropriations Committee will hold a special hearing on the issue on Sept. 7 to begin its investigation.
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said, "Two days ago, Governor Christie said this was his responsibility. Then he said it was all President Obama's fault. Apparently, he's now decided it's Bret Schundler's fault. 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."
The comment is an example of the heavy criticism Christie has drawn from rival Democrats, his nemeses the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teachers' union and the media. As Christie hammered what he sees as the outlook of the union and teachers to helping cut government costs, the NJEA and the teachers have been waiting for his administration to make a big mistake and the fact that it involves education made it all the better.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the state Democratic chairman, said, "It's no surprise that Governor Christie chose to let Commissioner Schundler take the blame for his blunder. No matter what happened at the presentation, (we still haven't heard directly from Schundler on this), the fact remains that if the governor didn't scrap the agreement painstakingly negotiated with various stakeholders including teachers and instead submit his own application at the last minute, we'd be celebrating the awarding of $400 million to New Jersey schools.
"Instead we're left to watch New York and Delaware qualify for nearly $1 billion in Race to the Top funding for their children,'' Wisniewski said. "So far in his short tenure as governor, Christie's desire to boost his national Republican party credentials has cost New Jersey the only African American on the New Jersey Supreme Court, funding for critical women's health services and now $400 million for our children. What will Christie's national Republican political strategy cost New Jersey next?"
The District of Columbia, not Delaware was awarded aid.
As one of his last action a commissioner, Schundler on Wednesday sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education requesting that the $75 million remaining in the Race to the Top fund be given to New Jersey.