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Dr. LeRoy Seitz, The Parsippany-Troy Hills Schools Superintendent who Governor Christie singled out last week as “the new poster boy for all that’s wrong with a public school system that is being dictated by greed” is suddenly in the middle of a ‘point-counterpoint’ reminiscent of the Schundler fiasco.

On November 9, the school board voted on a five-year contract that would give Seitz more than Governor Christie’s proposed salary cap in each of those next five years. The cap ( which tops out Superintendent salaries at $175,000 per year ) was first proposed last July, but would not take effect until February at the earliest. Three public hearings are needed first.

The County Superindent, Kathleeen Serafino, who needs to sign off on the Seitz contract claims she never did so. calls to her office were referred to the State DOE which says there is no clear approval of that contract in writing. That appears to be true. No final go-ahead letter was ever received by the school board.

But people familiar with the situation say  something doesn’t quite add up here. They insist that a “good faith negotiation” took place over several weeks and not once did Serafino or her Chief Negotiator Ralph Goodwin ever object to a salary that exceeded the proposed cap. In fact, the Superintendent ( who serves as the Christie Admin’s rep in the Seitz contract negotiation ) never even brought up the salary until a tersely worded letter popped up on DOE’s website yesterday saying the contract needs to be rescinded.

Apparently there is a trail of email correspondence leading up to the vote. Now, I have not seen these emails, but someone familiar with them read me their contents. On October 27 for example, two weeks before the board vote, Seitz asked if there would be a problem with his contract being approved on November 9th. Serafino responded “thanks, and good luck.”

On the 29th, an email from Goodwin said Serafino would approve the contract in writing when she returned from vacation which was after the vote. But how could she not have known that the vote was scheduled for November 9th? From what people involved in the negotiations say, the official approval was merely a formality. Another email from Goodwin on November 3 also did not raise any concern about the terms of the salary.

Finally, at least one source claims there was a face-to-face meeting on October 26th between Seitz, Serafino and others where Serafino said she could not sign off on a flat rate salary of $225,000 per year for five years, but she could approve 2% yearly increases. Seitz is currently making $212,000.

So, if there was a problem, there appears to be evidence that no one involved in the negotiations said a word about it until after the Governor made his comments.

As far as I know, people may be feeding me falsehoods. I suppose we can wait and see what those emails say when they are publicly released. ( And they will eventually be made public )

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When the story devolves into who said what to whom, and who said it first and when, that’s usually when I stop paying attention. I can feel the glazed-over expressions of boredom washing over the faces of thousands of New Jerseyans as they try to discern what happened with the missed opportunity to win Federal Race To The Top funding.

But since this is the first high-profile cabinet firing of the Christie Administration, and since this is not simply insider baseball because $400 million in funding that could have offset deep cuts was lost…it is probably worth examining closely.

We now know that Governor Christie defended Bret Schundler last week in a  Wednesday press conference saying essentially that Schundler gave the missing data to Federal DOE officials during the oral exam portion of the Race To The Top application.

However, the Obama Admin. produced a video showing that Schundler failed to provide the data when asked. Christie subsequently fired him. Here is an email exchange between Bret Schundler and Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Maria Comella. Note, this took place Tuesday night before the Wednesday presser. Schundler seems to tell her that he failed to clarify the data during the oral.

From: Schundler, Bret
Sent: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 5:01 PM
To: Schundler, Bret; Maria Comella; Guenther, Alan; Michael Drewniak; Kevin
Roberts
Cc: Smarick, Andrew; Blaustein, Michael; Hunter Pendarvis
Subject: RE: NJEA counterpoint

We did not, as the reviewers note, provide Fiscal Year 2008 budget data.

We supplied data relating to Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010, and the Governor’s
proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011 – cumulatively representing the most
up-to-date financial information on our education spending – but we did not
provide budget information relating to Fiscal Year 2008.

We did not realize the error in advance, and the competition rules did not
permit fixing of the error post-facto.

Bret

From: Maria Comella
Sent: Tuesday, August 24, 2010 5:12 PM
To: Schundler, Bret; Guenther, Alan; Michael Drewniak; Kevin Roberts
Cc: Smarick, Andrew; Blaustein, Michael; Hunter Pendarvis
Subject: RE: NJEA counterpoint

When did we realize the error? Did we not notify DOE of the error before we
did our in person presentation?

From: Schundler, Bret
Sent: Tue 8/24/2010 5:14 PM
To: Maria Comella; Guenther, Alan; Michael Drewniak; Kevin Roberts
Cc: Smarick, Andrew; Blaustein, Michael; Hunter Pendarvis
Subject: RE: NJEA counterpoint

We didn’t let the DOE know we had made the error because we didn’t know we
had made it – not until a panelist asked us about the Fiscal Year 2008
budget data.

When we were asked us about it, we checked our appendices.  All we could do
was confirm that we had erred — the 2008 data was not included.

We had instead given them FY 2010 vs FY 2009 data, when what they sought was
FY 2009 vs FY 2008 data.

programming note: I put the email text in bold so we can distinguish what was written by the Administration from what is being written by me. Duh.

So, it all comes down to what was said Wednesday morning the 25th when Christie spoke to Schundler by phone. Christie told reporters today that Schundler told him the exact opposite of what is in those emails. Schundler says he told the Governor not to go out and say he provided the data during the oral since that “information was false.”

Someone is not telling the truth here. Or maybe there was some misunderstanding. It is after all a lot of data – dates and numbers. But neither guy ( Schundler nor Christie ) seems willing to draft a joint statement giving them both some wiggle room here. It’s become a he-said, he-said.

It seems weird that Schundler would back away from what he said in the Tuesday emails. Maybe Comella didn’t convey the info to Christie? Certainly possible, but I have no knowledge of that.

But here is the bottom line: Schundler says changing the info during the oral doesn’t get the lost points back. That is new. Did someone tell the Governor that before his Wednesday presser?


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We hear an awful lot about why people are leaving New Jersey – taxes too high, cost of living is unaffordable, not enough private sector work. Lost in those valid arguments is a solid exploration of why people move here. That is the other side of the coin and it is an equally important discussion to be having.

People like their individual towns. They move here and stay here because they like that quaint hometown feeling. They like having their own town hall. They like their own police force, and they like that the schools are good. People enjoy the Penny-Lane romanticization of riding down main street with a fireman washing his truck, waving and calling your son by name. It’s not a fantasy. For some it is real life. But guess what? Those things cost money. The town hall requires maintenance and upkeep, the Police Chief probably makes $125,000 and those schools are “good” because they have nice grassy fields, smart committed teachers and a lunchroom that won’t make you gag.

So, when you start cutting money from those things people get nervous. They are not nervous yet, because right now there is this anti-property tax fever that has led to what some have argued is an arbitrary and perhaps hasty 2% cap.

The counter argument to supporting a cap above all other considerations is this: people might be even more inclined to leave the state if all those things that made it so appealing in their chosen town start to falter. Suddenly, that once cute town hall needs a coat of paint and looks shabby and rundown since the local Public Works Department laid off half it’s staff. That Police Chief is gone, along with a handful of those nice cops who you once played football with in High School. And finally, the school no longer holds a competitive advantage because young, qualified teachers don’t wanna relocate there…the pay is too low.

Another point to consider – we are living in a unique period of history. The economy really is as bad as it has been in several generations. But it will turn around. These things are cyclical. And if there is one thing we have learned about a crisis it’s that it doesn’t always lend itself to rational policy making. Particularly when the decisions that will greatly impact communities are made under duress over a holiday weekend.

I mean, look what happened with TARP. In 2008, the economy was in a full meltdown. Congress rushed in to pass the nearly $700 billion bank bailout. They attached no requirement that the banks then use that money to lend. And they put no stipulations on how it should be spent. I am not an economist so I don’t know whether that bailout was even necessary. My thought is that you let the guys who gambled with other people’s money go down. Nothing would have prevented a repeat performance more than letting the Capitanes of Industry go down with their respective ships. But regardless of what the right response was or should have been, it’s probably safe to say the legislation could have been a little less “we trust you’ll do the right thing” and a little more “this will guarantee you do the right thing.”

Finally, there is the Reform New Jersey Now element. This organization has been running ads urging action on the cap. Democrats have called on the Governor to disclose the donor list. Mike DuHaime, the Governor’s campaign strategist has said they will do so by the end of the year. The group’s tax status is such that they do not have to reveal that donor list. However, is it strange that this unknown group of people are driving the policy agenda in New Jersey? Not only driving it, but making sure lawmakers agree to a cap deal over July 4th weekend, and that it gets voted on within a week. Does that make good policy? Maybe. We’ll see.

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It’s that time of the year again. The New Jersey Press Association presents the Legislative Correspondent’s Club annual show.

Basically, the state’s  ( now dwindling ) press corps performs a series of skits and songs that mock the political and media elite of the Garden State. It is often quite funny replete with costumes, wigs and other flamboyant accessories that would make even Elton John blush.

As for my role…well, I am El Presidente this year. That means I don’t actually have to sing ( which is not my strong suit ). I have to deliver the introductory speech which is supposed to be funny and slightly mean spirited. Well, I don’t know how funny it shall be, although I’m working on it. It will most certainly be biting, and of course familiar.

Then of course, after the show is over, people get to stand around and hang out in a cocktail party-type atmosphere which is even more fun. And the whole evening is off the record. So, if you are remotely interested, I urge you to purchase tickets. Proceeds go to charity.

Contact Peg Stephan 609-406-0600 ext. 14. or pastephan@njpa.org

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