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Role of Consultant Comes to Light as Schundler Admits Error

Brooklyn education technology firm hired to help Race to the Top application also overlooked crucial mistake.

New Jersey’s doomed Race to the Top application that led to the ouster of the state’s education commissioner last week had another quiet hand involved: a Brooklyn consultant that was paid nearly $180,000 to assist in the bid.

According to public records obtained by NJ Spotlight, Wireless Generation Inc. also worked on the state’s first Race to the Top application last winter under a separate but similar contract. That bid also fell short in the first round of the federal competition, in which states applied for more than $4.3 billion in federal funds.

But the failure of the second-round application, and who or what was to blame, has caused a furor in Trenton, leading to Gov. Chris Christie’s firing of Bret Schundler as education commissioner on Friday and Democratic legislators holding hearings next week.

Less known has been the role of Wireless Generation, which though hired as a consultant to help steer the state through the process also apparently failed to catch the critical mistake over missing information that is at the center of the political storm.

"This just raises more questions about the application and how it was done," said state Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), the Assembly majority leader. "We certainly look forward to hearing from the consultant next week, and getting their version of events."

Schundler Takes Responsibility

In what Christie described as a "clerical error" but what Schundler today acknowledged may have been his own, the state failed to provide readily available information about its education funding in 2008 and 2009, costing the state five points that could have made the difference. The state fell short of potentially winning $399 million by just three out of a maximum of 500 points.

After days of conjecture over how the mistake was made, Schundler said in an interview last night that it was he who inadvertently dropped the necessary language from the application. "It turns out I was responsible," he said.

He said that in the back-and-forth of writing and rewriting different sections of the application, including working with Wireless Generation’s staff, he left the required information out of the working copy.

As to whether the consultants or anyone else should have caught the error in a final edit, Schundler said he would not blame others.

It is not unusual for the DOE -- or for any department -- to have outside consultants work on such applications, especially those as complex as the Race to the Top. Several other states also hired consultants to help in their bids.

Consultant's Contract Won Waiver

According to a contract signed on May 18, Wireless Generation was hired to "provide planning, communication, writing and advisory services" for New Jersey’s second-round application. The total amount was a fixed $179,750 for work through June.

The contract was not put out to competitive bid, instead receiving a waiver from the state treasurer’s office. But Wireless Generation had won the first-round contract through a competitive bid process conducted under the administration of then-Gov. Jon Corzine, according to the waiver request. The amount of that first contract was not disclosed.

"Because Wireless Generation developed New jersey’s first application, we believe they are uniquely qualified, and it would be most advantageous and in the state’s best interest to request this Supplement Waiver of Advertising to continue to provide the required services," read the request from Willa Spicer, the deputy commissioner at the time and now an assistant commissioner.

Schundler said much the same last night, describing the company as having a "solid foundation about both our application and New Jersey’s education system."

Wireless Generation is a 10-year-old company of about 300 employees, headquartered in Brooklyn and with offices in Atlanta, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

The company is best known for its education technology services, including a high-profile project in New York City developing customized instructional services for students through the use of technology.

It said in its agreement with New Jersey that it would deploy four full-time staffers to work with the state "for the duration of the project," as well as other experts, including its president, Larry Berger, and Lauren Resnick, a noted education psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh.

"We look forward to assisting New Jersey in winning the Race to the Top," wrote Wireless Generation vice president David Stevenson at the conclusion of the agreement.

Reached yesterday, the company’s vice president for communication, Andrea Reibel, would not comment beyond saying it had advised the state on the application.

"Wireless Generation provided planning and advisory services to the New Jersey Department of Education in support of its Race to the Top application," read a prepared statement. "At this point, any questions about the state's application should be addressed to the New Jersey Department of Education."

A department spokesman would not comment further.

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