TRENTON, N.J. – Gov. Chris Christie fired his education commissioner Friday, days after it was revealed that a simple mistake on an application might have cost New Jersey a $400 million education grant.
The dismissal of Commissioner Bret Schundler comes after New Jersey became the top runner-up for the Race to the Top grants, missing out by only a few points. The Star-Ledger of Newark later reported that budget figures for the wrong years were supplied in one section of the application.
Christie had defended Schundler on Wednesday and blamed the U.S. Education Department for considering form over substance. Christie said this week that Schundler gave the federal government the missing information during a meeting in Washington this month. But a video released Thursday by the federal Education Department shows that wasn't the case.
"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 Friday. "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."
In an interview at his Jersey City home Friday, Schundler responded that he gave the governor's staff the right story.
He said he met with Christie on Wednesday before the governor talked to the media about the grant application error.
"I told him stuff that he had said wasn't accurate on Wednesday morning when he was telling me what he was going to say to you guys," Schundler told a group of reporters. "I said, 'Stop. Where you say I gave the numbers, I did not give them the numbers.'"
He also shared printouts of e-mails from Tuesday that he says show that he accurately told the governor's public relations office what happened during the meeting in question. On one, he writes an account that was backed up by the video: "All we could do was confirm that we had erred — the 2008 data was not included," he says.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said Schundler is misrepresenting what he told the governor's office verbally and misinterpreting the emails to try to cover up that he misled the governor.
"We regret that Mr. Schundler continues to sully his own image by engaging in revisionist history," Drewniak said. "Mr. Schundler was the Administration's only source for what occurred in the Race to the Top presentation. All of the Governor's statements were based on Mr. Schundler's account."
Schundler said he was asked to resign, but he requested to be fired instead so he could collect unemployment insurance.
"I have a mortgage to pay and a daughter about to start college," he said.
Schundler, who served as Jersey City's mayor for most of the 1990s, was an unconventional choice as a member of the governor's cabinet.
As a Republican, he broke ground to become mayor of Jersey City, a diverse city dominated by Democrats.
He's known as a policy wonk and an intellectual, a conservative from a big city and a long-winded politician who has trouble making soundbites. He was known for helping Jersey City become a major outpost for Manhattan's financial industry and for pushing charter schools.
He ran for governor in 2001 as a conservative antiestablishment candidate, and he pulled off a surprising victory in the Republican primary, but lost in the general election.
He later taught, then was chief executive officer at The King's College, a Christian liberal arts school housed in the Empire State Building.
He came to the education commissioner's job as one of New Jersey's most fervent advocates for opening up public schools to competition by expanding publicly funded charter schools and allowing taxpayer money to be used for scholarships for students to attend private schools.
It seemed he might also be a key player in supporting Christie in his campaign against the power of the New Jersey Education Association, the state's main teachers union.
But that's not exactly the way it turned out.
In May, just before the Race to the Top grant application was due, Schundler made some compromises on the merit pay components of the proposal to win the endorsement of the NJEA.
Christie rejected those compromises and submitted a grant application that didn't include them.
NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said Friday that firing Schundler amounted to making him a scapegoat for a mistake that she contends the governor had a role in creating.
Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, which advocates greater school choice, called Schundler's dismissal "dramatic."
"Bret is a grand champion for this agenda, for the education reform movement, as is the governor," Bradford said. "The agenda is still being advanced because it's bigger that any one person."
State Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, welcomed the firing.
But she says she's still moving ahead with a hearing Sept. 7 on what went wrong on the Race to the Top application.
"New Jerseyans deserve an honest accounting from Gov. Christie about what truly happened with this costly error," she said.
The state Senate is holding a similar heading Sept. 23 — and inviting Schundler.
On Friday, Christie named Assistant Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks to be acting commissioner while a search is conducted for a permanent replacement for Schundler.
DeFalco reported from Jersey City.