Not Everyone Felt Good About Christie’s Feel-Good Event at His Alma Mater

John Mooney | July 1, 2015 | Education, Politics
Teachers protested outside while school board grappled with request to use school for political event

Livingston High School, alma mater of Gov. Chris Christie, who chose the school as the venue for yesterday's announcement that he is seeking the GOP nomination for president.
The decision by Gov. Chris Christie to announce his presidential bid at Livingston High School may have been obvious for its hometown optics, but he hardly picked a place that could be described as “Christie Country.”

Livingston schools, as much as any in the state, have stood in the way of the Christie administration’s school-reform efforts, on a number of fronts.

For one thing, close to 40 percent of Livingston’s students sat out the state’s new PARCC tests endorsed by Christie this spring, with local school leaders openly defiant.

More immediately, the leader of the Livingston school district’s teachers union helped organize a raucous protest by hundreds of teachers outside Christie’s event yesterday, and school-district leaders hardly offered ringing endorsements of the governor-turned-candidate.

Asked specifically whether Christie has been good for Livingston public schools, Superintendent James O’Neill was diplomatic, at best.

“When you look at what we’ve done here – two Presidential scholars, 100 percent of graduates going to college – you would say ‘yes,’ “ he said in in interview yesterday.

“But if there is any place that has been detrimental, it is the morale of our teachers who feel they have been under attack with this governor,” O’Neill said. “I think it is really unfortunate he has chosen the rhetoric he has chosen in attacking teachers.”

From the start, the choice of Livingston High School for Christie’s announcement was rife with intrigue.

In his launch yesterday, the governor – a 1980 graduate — played up the importance, of the location for his announcement. He has long touted his connections to the school, and it was a former school board president who introduced him yesterday.

“This is where it all started,” Christie said.

But for the district, there was nothing easy about Christie’s choice of venue, as local officials said they first got the request last Wednesday, setting off a flurry of phone calls and emails regarding whether it was acceptable.

On one hand, the district has a written policy that the schools can’t be used for politically partisan events. On the other hand, this was the sitting governor making a request of his hometown schools, after all, and there was some precedent, as former President Bill Clinton visited the Livingston schools in 1992 when he was candidate for the White House.

The latter argument prevailed, said board President Pamela Chirls, but not without some soul-searching.

“Because he was the sitting governor and a graduate of Livingston High School, we decided to give him the space,” Chirls said last night.

“It was hard to say no,” she continued. “But it was also hard to say yes, as we certainly understand the effects there have been on the education provided to our students.”

Chirls, a registered Democrat, said the challenges under Christie’s administration have been many for the district, ranging from a dire state aid picture to a cap on superintendent pay that has the district now hiring its second interim superintendent.

“We just haven’t been able to establish someone in that position,” she said.

In all, Chirls said, the board received a dozen or so complaints about the governor using the school for his announcement. But she said there was little dissent among the board members themselves over approving the request, and she hoped the event would be a chance to highlight the district’s accomplishments.

“We felt it was an opportunity to showcase not just Livingston, but public education in general,” she said.

The Livingston teachers union was hardly so restrained, as its leaders were behind a protest outside the school yesterday that at times upstaged Christie’s announcement.

Hundreds of teachers, many of them dressed in red, gathered on the field outside the high school and maintained a steady chant of protests throughout the morning, and right to the end as Christie supporters marched past them.

“If he had done this at the Statehouse, we probably wouldn’t have been here,” said Anthony Rosamilia, the bullhorn-carrying president of the Livingston teachers union and the protest’s unofficial emcee. “But this was like he was rubbing it in our face.”

In between, there remained the matter of logistics for the district. Christie’s staff initially asked to use the high school’s gym, but as the event grew closer, Christie’s campaign asked for more and more amenities, local officials said.

The last request came at 5:30 on the morning of yesterday’s event, when O’Neill said the campaign requested more Internet connections in classrooms that were to be used by staff. At the same time, the district had asked the campaign to not distribute election-related materials at the event, a request that proved futile when the staffers brought “Christie 2016” signs and stickers.

“They had their agenda, and it didn’t necessarily coincide with our agenda,” said O’Neill, who will be stepping down at the end of the summer. “It is what it is.”