Emotions Run High On Eve of School Budget Vote

Gov. Christie accuses New Jersey Education Association of dirty tricks, including harassing
the Lt. Governor's children

On the fourth floor of the Statehouse annex, those with disabilities expressed fear for their support programs. Others among the more than 200 attendees at the Assembly’s budget committee hearing bemoaned the loss of their college scholarships.

Downstairs in his outer office, Gov. Chris Christie barely mentioned the hearings upstairs and continued his verbal war against the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association.

He leveled still more accusations of dirty tricks by the NJEA and painted the union as a chief villain in the state’s fiscal crisis for failing to agree to wage freezes to help mitigate the budget squeeze.

He repeated that local voters across the state should vote down school budgets tomorrow if wage freezes aren’t in place. Only a quarter of all districts have wage concessions of any types, and only a small fraction of those involve teachers.

“If you feel your town has done the best they can and there is shared sacrifice among the teachers union, the administrators and the citizens, then I have no problem voting yes to that kind of budget,” he said.

“But if I don’t see shared sacrifice, I think that’s a problem, and you should vote no,” Christie said.

Unprecedented Cuts

The contrast in the upstairs-downstairs scenes epitomizes the fiscal 2010 budget debate so far, with little in common between the Democrat-led legislative forums of complaint and criticism and the Republican governor’s press conferences marked by bravado and defiance.

If there is one thing they have in common, it is the high emotions in both settings, not surprising for a budget that makes unprecedented cuts in aid to schools and municipalities and steep reductions in virtually every other line item (see Christie’s School Aid Cuts: A History Lesson).

The constituents affected by those cuts were in full attendance in the hearings that started at 9:30 a.m. and were still going 10 hours later. There were mayors and city managers lamenting the loss of $275 million in municipal aid, while the state increased the requirements on them. The latest was a new environmental mandate for a “truck wash” in every public works yard.

But the attendees’ stories were more painful, like the special needs children who are scapegoated for the amounts spent on their education while middle school sports are being eliminated.

“You don’t want to be the parent of a child costing all that money,” said Peg Kinsell, director of public policy for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, sharing emails that families insisted remain anonymous.

“Some of the stuff is getting ugly,” she said.

One of the day’s more interesting exchanges came with the testimony of Barbara Keshishian, president of the NJEA. Several hours after Christie’s press conference, Keshishian again defended the NJEA for not pressing wage freezes, saying she’s not against them entirely but they must be left to local chapters to negotiate.

That led to some testy words from Assemblyman Joseph Malone (R-Burlington), who questioned why the union wouldn’t press its members harder to help save teachers from layoffs.

No Universal Panacea

“Are you aware of the catastrophic losses of revenues this year?” he asked Keshishian.

“I just find it incredible that we can’t come to common ground that would save literally thousands of jobs,” he told her.

But Keshishian maintained that wage freezes across the state would not make up for the cuts proposed by Christie’s budget, a point backed up by a recent legislative staff report.

“Don’t take the wage freeze as some universal panacea,” she said.

A few hours earlier, Christie leveled some of his harshest criticisms yet of the NJEA, accusing its teachers of harassing his relatives and the children of Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno.

“There have been insulting and out-of-line comments that are just beyond the pale,” he said. “Even our families are not out of bounds.”

He also cited an assignment at a Monroe Township school where students were required to interview their parents on whether they would vote in the school budget elections tomorrow.

He claimed the students were being used “like drug mules” to give the NJEA information on parents’ intentions. The assignment, offered as an example by Christie’s staff, did not ask parents which way they would vote.

NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said the governor—who has complained of the level of insults thrown his way—was taking the rhetoric too far.

“Obviously, he doesn’t have a problem with pejoratives when he’s hurling them,” Wollmer said. “Drug mules? Where’s the civility there?”