The town hall setting has been Gov. Chris Christie’s best and certainly most famous format, where he gets to indulge the masses and show off his improvisational and political skills.
But as Christie’s second term enters its last year and he remains beleaguered under the weight of a failed presidential bid — not to mention the Bridgegate trial — even these forums have not gotten any easier.
Yesterday, Christie held yet another town hall at a senior center in New Providence, this time around his “Fairness Formula” proposal for New Jersey’s schools. The governor appeared to be trying to burnish his image at a time when it is anything but gold.
While protests are hardly foreign, he heard some clear pushback yesterday on some core pieces of his message about public schools, as well as one occasion where he simply ignored the question outright.
The governor has proposed a radical remaking of how New Jersey funds its public schools, and while its odds are long of ever getting through the Democratic-led Legislature, he clearly is not giving up and continues to win at least some converts.
The proposal — his so-called Fairness Formula — would provide the same state aid per student aid to all districts, regardless of wealth. That would mean big tax relief in many suburban districts, including his host, New Providence, and deep cuts in aid to urban ones that count on the state’s largesse.
Yesterday, it was a clearly a supportive audience, especially in a suburban senior citizens center, and Christie’s invocation of vast disparities in state aid and local taxes between places like New Providence and a favorite villain like Asbury Park drew gasps and assents.
“Let’s take Asbury Park,” Christie said. “I told you that spending in New Providence is $17,377 (per pupil). The per-pupil spending in Asbury Park is $33,699… There’s an inequity in there, isn’t there?”
For all the sympathetic ears yesterday, there were a few dissenters as well who asked if cutting funds to needy districts was the best path.
One member of the audience asked if Christie’s message would be any different if he was speaking in an urban district, a rare stop on the governor’s speaking tour.
Another said his proposal appeared to widen the urban-suburban divide in the state. Christie didn’t much dispute that notion and added fuel in invoking the wide disparities between urban and suburban districts and their spending, even if skipping over the reasons for it.
He even criticized the state-run district of Camden — the district where he notably initiated the state’s takeover in 2013 — as still “the worst school district in New Jersey.”
But when asked by another audience member whether even his proposal would directly lead to actual property tax reductions, Christie pulled back on concrete promises and said it was at least worth a try.
“I understand your skepticism that (municipalities) will work out a way around this,” he said. “But that can’t be an excuse for not trying. We know the system now doesn’t work.”
A student from New Providence High School rose bravely to ask Christie whether, for all his claims of fairness, his plan would hurt refugees newly arrive in the state who rely on the public schools to provide added language programs.
Christie dodged the question entirely. He commended the student for her work in helping those refugee families but then discussed how his proposal wouldn’t impact special-education funding.
“Those with special-education challenges are taken out of this fairness formula,” he said. “That is exempted out, and everything else is in.”
The problem is the student was not asking about special education funding but the needs of limited-English students, an entirely different category. Christie did not address that. His office did not answer an email afterward seeking clarification.