BY TOM HESTER SR.
Gov. Chris Christie's decision to eliminate compromises between his then-education commissioner Bret Schundler and the NJEA, the statewide teachers union, in his administration's application for federal Race to the Top education funds was a major factor in New Jersey losing the competition for $400 million in aid, an Assembly hearing determined Tuesday.
The administration lost the chance to finish in the money by 4 points due to an editing mistake by now-ousted commissioner Bret Schundler but Christie's last-minute decision to eliminate the compromise with the New Jersey Education Association lost 17 to 20 points on the application, Department of Education officials conceded.
DOE Assistant Commissioner Willa Spicer said Christie refused to support the compromise because, among other things, it kept the standard that calls for teachers to be laid-off by seniority. The governor wants a standard where school districts would let the least effective teachers go.Acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks told legislators at the lengthy and meandering hearing held by the lower house's Appropriations Committee in Trenton that Schundler specifically made the editing mistake that is pinpointed as the key reason the administration failed to win the federal aid. And Daniel Gohl, a Newark school official, for the first time, revealed to the committee that he caught the Schundler mistake a few days before he, Schundler and other DOE officials appeared before a panel of U.S. DOE officials in Washington to review the application in August but only told administration consultants and not Schundler or other state DOE officials.
Gohl said the consultants, Wireless Generation, told him June 1 was the deadline for corrections and federal officials would not accept changes.
Schundler went into the Washington meeting unaware of the mistake even though he made it during the eighth or twelve revisions of the application. Christie fired Schundler for "lying'' after the public blow up over the loss of the badly-needed aid and what became the greatest political embarrassment of his seven months in office.
Christie maintained Schundler told him he personally told federal officials of the mistake at the Washington meeting. Schundler insists he twice warned Christie and his chief of staff Richard Bagger that he did not tell the federal officials and not to claim that publicly. Christie claims Schundler never warned him and that he lied to him.
Schundler, who was very critical of Christie after his firing, turned down an invitation by Assemblywoman Nellie Pou, (D-Passaic) the Appropriations Committee chairwoman, to appear at the Monday hearing.
"I am praying that legislators don't use my error as an excuse to let education reform in New Jersey die,'' Schundler said in a statement. "That would keep some special interests happy, but it would hurt our children far more than the loss of grant money. We have an opportunity to increase the learning and life opportunities of New Jersey children. We need to put politics aside and do the right thing for them.''
While making an appearance on a New York radio station Monday morning, Christie said of firing Schundler, "Trust broke down. We had to move on.''
In her opening remarks, Pou said New Jersey cannot afford to repeat what she described as a $400 million error
"My colleagues and I have many questions about the way in which this application was developed,'' the Assemblywoman said. "Who had input? Who had the final say on our answers? How many levels of editing were involved? What was the consultants' role in the final product? What were the lines of communication between the department and the front office?''
Pou added, "Unfortunately, we begin today's hearing with a sense of frustration. The governor's office did not, as we requested, permit key players to attend this hearing to explain to the people of New Jersey what truly happened. We also did not get a timely response to our request for documentation.''
Christie informed Pou on Friday that Greg Edwards, now the DOE chief of policy, Michael Drewniak, his press secretary, and Maria Comella, his communications director, would not appear as she requested because they played no role in the creation of the aid application. The governor did send Hendricks, Spicer, Gohl, and DOE officials Andrew Smarick and Jessani Gordon.
Democrats on the committee attempted to stress that Christie's decision to eliminate the application compromise Schundler had agreed to with the NJEA was a big factor in New Jersey falling just short of gaining a share of the Race to the Top aid.
Smarick said Christie was adamant that he would not agree to the compromise that would allow the continuation of seniority when it comes to teacher layoffs, and when the NJEA pulled out its support of the application, it cost 17 to 20 points in the competition.
The deadline for submitting the application was June 1. Spicer said that after Christie killed the NJEA compromise on May 27, it sparked a lot of last minute revisions in the application. DOE officials and consultants worked through the Memorial Day weekend revising the final application.
Smarick told the committee officials know Schundler's mistake was not made until May 22 at the earliest.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) described the hearing "A start, but nothing more.
"The testimony by education officials left too many unanswered questions about how this mistake was made, including what role the high-paid consultant played, what was the value of a team member who noticed the mistake but didn't tell anyone and how a non-state employee was able to play such a large role in the application's development,'' Oliver said.
The Assemblywoman added, "The only theme that emerged today was ‘I don't know,' which was the continuously repeated response by all the top education officials involved in the application process. The people of New Jersey deserve better and continue to demand answers as to what truly happened with this $400 million mistake. Until we find that out, neither the Assembly nor taxpayers will be satisfied. The Assembly will continue to delve into this matter and we will announce our next step shortly."After the hearing, Assembly members Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex), Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Burlington), John DiMaio and Erik Peterson (both R- Warren), all members of the Appropriations Committee, announced they sent a letter to state Attorney General Paula T Dow asking that the actions of Wireless Generation be examined to determine whether the firm had met its contractual obligations.
As the state's Race to the Top application consultant, Wireless made $500,000 under a contract initiated by the Corzine administration and continued by the Christie administration
In their letter the Republicans point out, "An error was made in the state's application regarding the level of educational funding between fiscal years 2008 and 2009, resulting in the deduction of points from the achieved total score. Wireless Generation did not effectively fact-check the application prior to submission to correct this error. While it appears the changes were initiated at Commissioner Schundler's request, there is no indication Wireless advised the commissioner his proposed edits would render the answer non-responsive to the question. In so doing, Wireless failed to assure the technical accuracy of the application in violation of their contract."
The Republican Dow "to pursue all legal options on behalf of the state and examine whether Wireless Generation fulfilled their specified contractual responsibilities. If it is determined the terms of the agreement were not satisfied, we ask that all appropriate remedies be pursued, including financial restitution and the imposition of any penalties provided for in the contract.''