Christie And Schundler Fall Out Over Race To The Top Blunder

August 30, 2010 8:40 a.m.

So what should we make of the public spat now occurring between Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and his former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who was fired this past Friday as a result of the errors that resulted int he state losing $400 million in Race to the Top money? Christie’s side say that he was misled by Schundler’s description of the events – and Schundler says he never told them what they say he did. Let’s review the known events that have occurred up to now.

There is no dispute that New Jersey committed an error in its application for the multi-billion dollar program, which awards grant money to states that compete on the basis of their actions on education reform. The question, then, is who made the error, and what did Christie really know about the process?

In early June, Christie overruled an application that Schundler had formulated from a deal with the state teachers union, on the grounds that the deal had been too favorable to the union and went against his own education agenda. “I made the choice to be bold,” Christie said, “not only because I want it to be successful but it’s because that’s what I agree with.”

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Then last week, it was revealed that because of an error in the new application, which included budget numbers for the wrong years, New Jersey was docked just enough points to lose out on $400 million in federal funds. (Even worse, the Star Ledger reported that the original draft that Schundler and the union agreed to contained the correct information.)

This past Wednesday, Christie gave a fiery speech in which he blamed the Obama administration, saying they would not accept a correction offered by Schundler during the presentation: “When the president comes back to New Jersey, he’s going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he’s depriving them of $400 million that this application earned. Because one of his bureaucrats in Washington couldn’t pick up the phone and ask a question, couldn’t go on the internet and find information, or wouldn’t accept the verbal representation of commissioner Schundler when they were down there.” (Via Nexis.)

The federal Department of Education then responded on Thursday, by releasing a video that clearly showed Schundler and his fellow New Jersey officials being surprised when the federal officials pointed out the error to them, and then being unable to fix the problem by the end of the presentation:

Excerpt of N.J.'s Race to the Top interview shows officials with no budget answer

After that happened, Schundler was fired on Friday. “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. “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.”

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Schundler then told the Associated Press that he didn’t lie about the events of the meeting at all. “In fact, I was very direct with him [Christie] that we didn’t get the panel the numbers,” Schundler said — and he showed the AP e-mails which he said backed him up on the story.

Christie’s office released a statement, refuting this idea: “We regret that Mr. Schundler continues to sully his own image by engaging in revisionist history. His attempts to cover up misleading the Governor are evidenced by the contrast between his letter to Secretary Duncan, in which he describes making a verbal clarification at the presentation, and the video released by the U.S. Department of Education. 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 also told the Bergen Record that he explicitly told Christie not to make the claims in question. So why did Christie say such a thing? “I don’t think the governor ignored what I said,” said Schundler. “I think the governor gets rolling…and a lot of stuff gets said.”

Interestingly, Schundler has also claimed that he had asked to be fired rather than resign, in order to make it easier for him to collect unemployment benefits — a somewhat humorous result coming from a former leading figure of the state GOP’s right wing, who had been known as a champion of welfare reform. “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,” Schundler told the Star-Ledger reports. “And I, frankly, will need the unemployment insurance benefits until I find another job. … And they said fine. They said sure.”

Christie’s office denied this claim: “The chief of staff called Bret Schundler last night and requested his resignation, at which point in time Mr. Schundler indicated he would resign in the morning,” said a statement from spokesman Michael Drewniak. “This morning, he refused to sign the resignation letter and was subsequently terminated.”

And now the state Dems are digging in. State Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono has announced that Schundler is invited to testify about the matter before the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee. “Commissioner Schundler’s firing has taken this controversy down an entirely new path,” said Buono. “His dismissal opens up new avenues of questions to this administration that need to be answered.”

She added: “I look forward to hearing the unfiltered truth.”

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