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Christie Fires N.J. Education Chief After Grant Error

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie fired his education commissioner today, three days after a failed attempt to win $400 million in federal aid.

The commissioner, Bret Schundler, 51, is a former mayor of Jersey City and a champion of charter schools. He is the first cabinet member to depart since Christie, a Republican, took office Jan. 19. The governor announced his firing in a news release.

On a 1,000-page application for a Race to the Top grant, New Jersey lost almost five points for answering a question about the 2008 and 2009 education budgets with information about fiscal 2011.

Those points were more than the margin between New Jersey and Ohio, the last of 10 states to qualify for a share of the aid. In a press conference Aug. 25, the day after the decision, Christie assailed critics, saying the mistake was a “clerical error” that Schundler corrected in an interview with federal officials. He added, “I’m not going to fire anybody over this.”

Yesterday, the U.S. Education Department released a video of the Aug. 11 meeting between Schundler and federal officials that appears to contradict Christie’s statement.

‘Extremely Disappointed’

“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 (DOE) and which I then conveyed to the people of New Jersey,” Christie said today in a news release.

“As a result, I ordered an end to Bret Schundler’s service.”

Schundler told the Associated Press today that he was disappointed.

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

He told the news service that he was asked to resign, but wanted to be fired so he could collect unemployment insurance.

“I have a mortgage to pay and a daughter about to start college,” he said.

The episode is a disruption for Christie, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville.

“I don’t know if this stops his momentum,” he said. “It’s a major speed bump.”

A Young Mayor

Schundler started his public career as an aide to a Democratic congressman and worked on the unsuccessful 1984 presidential campaign of former U.S. Senator Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat, according to a biography on Schundler’s website.

Switching parties, he ran for mayor of Jersey City in 1992, and, at 33, became the first Republican since 1917 elected to lead the state’s second-largest city. He was re-elected twice.

As mayor, Schundler pioneered the use of tax-lien securitization, in which a city raises revenue by selling investors the right to collect overdue property levies. In 1998, he coordinated the establishment of the 500-student Golden Door Charter School, one of the state’s largest.

Schundler ran for governor twice. In 2001, he lost to James McGreevey, a Democrat. Four years later Schundler lost the primary to Doug Forrester, who in turn lost to Democrat Jon Corzine, a former U.S. senator and chief executive officer of Goldman, Sachs & Co. Christie beat Corzine last year to become the first Republican to be elected governor in 12 years.

Questioning Christie

Democrats, who control the Legislature and have largely gone along with Christie in a pension overhaul, budget cuts and property-tax limits, have scheduled a Sept. 7 hearing on his handling of the grant application.

“There was a significant blunder and now there’s a coverup going on,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat. “What’s on the line right now is credibility.”

During his Aug. 25 press conference, Christie, 47, predicted criticism, and dismissed it.

“For Democrats in New Jersey now, who want to make hay over this, go ahead. Have a party,” he said. “I have very broad shoulders.”

Christie said twice that the mistake wasn’t worth a dismissal.

“If you think for a minute that I’m going to fire some mid-level person at DOE who is putting this application together, because they put one wrong piece of paper in, then you don’t know me,” he said.

At least twice during that press conference Christie said that Schundler supplied the missing information during the Aug. 11 meeting, two weeks before the decision.

No Answers

The video released by the Education Department shows Schundler and four assistants at a table fielding questions from off-screen questioners. In the recording, Schundler and the aides are unable to provide the information.

Justin Hamilton, an Education Department spokesman, confirmed the veracity of the video, and said no information had been supplied after the meeting.

The episode revived criticism from the New Jersey Education Association, the 203,000-member teacher’s union that Christie has accused of blocking efforts to improve schools. Christie publicly chastised Schundler in June after learning he had collaborated on a Race to the Top proposal with the union.

Hearings Ahead

Christie ordered that proposal redrawn days before the deadline. In the process, the answer that reviewers called incomplete was changed, the union said.

“This is what happens when you slap together an application,” the union’s president, Barbara Keshishian, said in a statement.

Speaker Sheila Oliver of East Orange, the top Democrat in the Assembly, is coordinating hearings on the application with Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, a Democrat from Middlesex County. In a statement Oliver called Schundler’s firing “appropriate.”

Sweeney, the Senate president, said in a statement that Christie still needs to answer for the handling of the application.

“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,” he said.

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