Author Archive: Bill Orr

About Bill Orr

University of Virginia Masters in English. Have lived in Argentina, Panama, Delaware, Virginia, California, NYC, and New Jersey for the last 25 years. Former editor and manager at McGraw-Hill, former President of Gay Activist Alliance of NJ, founder of NJ ActUp, and North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) in Newark.

Race To The Facts

So what happened?  It’s not always easy to get the full, accurate story.

Fortunately, two top Education Department leaders Rochelle Hendricks, Acting Commissioner, and Andy Smarick, Acting Deputy Commissioner, will testify on Tuesday.  They have overseen the proposal through its many changes. Former Commissioner Schundler said that while reviewing the proposal, without the Fed’s specific request/question in front of him, he noted that the response addressed data for 2008-09. He assumed the Feds wanted more current data, so in a handwritten note he sought to change the response. What happened to his handwritten notes and what do they say? So far the State has not turned over these notes to the legislature. Who took the notes and typed them into the proposal, and did they type only from his  notes or add material, and if so, why? Did yet another person enhance the response in a way more favorable to Governor Christie? Were changes in the proposal made within the Executive Office and unknown to the Education Department?

In addressing  these matters legislators have to be persistent. If a question is avoided or not fully answered, legislators must re-ask the question. Also in a legislative hearing what you ask is as important as getting questions answered. The Education Department officials may not necessarily volunteer unsolicited information. They are both employed at the will of the governor and both would like to be appointed commissioner by the governor.

It appears Wired Generation, contracted to provide grant services, will not be present. That’s unfortunate, because blame is sometimes shifted to those who are not there. Were they or someone else responsible for final fact checking and matching the proposal responses with the corresponding application questions? Did they or someone else catch the error but were ordered to back off? They have hired a lawyer, so their side of the story may remain unclear for some time.

Read more below the fold about Schundler’s claim that the governor lied.

Race To Nowhere Update

 PolitickerNJ reported last night:

Acting Commissioner of Education Rochelle Hendricks, Deputy Commissioner Andrew Smarick and Newark Public Schools Executive Assistant for Innovation and Change Dan Gohl will all appear before the Assembly Appropriations Committee Tuesday to discuss the error that led to the denial of the state’s grant application. But the administration has denied the committee’s request to have Gov. Chris Christie’s Chief of Staff Rich Bagger, Communications Director Michael Drewniak and staffers Maria Comella and Gregg Edwards appear before the committee. Consultant Wireless Generation, which was paid a six-figure fee to aid in the application process has retained an attorney, O’Dowd said, and will not be appearing.

However there remains uncertainty about some attendees and the ability to get documents in a timely way. The Star Ledger reported this morning, “In a statement, Assemblywoman Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said: “The frustration we’re experiencing with the administration is that we have not been able to confirm a number of these attendees or secure the documentation we’ve requested in a timely manner.” The Christie administration has not responded to several requests for documents, including one that proves Schundler made the error.”

The Record reported today, “A week after he was fired, New Jersey’s former education commissioner said he isn’t considering taking legal action over his termination.  But in an e-mail Friday to The Associated Press, Bret Schundler said he would like an apology from Gov. Chris Christie.”

What A Situation: The Press Conference

     “He seems like he thinks he’s better than everyone else. He seems like he is out of touch with reality. I do not understand how he can honestly have such a warped reality. He says that everyone loves him and that he doesn’t care what people say. Like he says some really outrageous things.”

Having written too frequently about Governor Christie, let me turn my attention to another even better known luminary in the NJ firmament. The above character analysis by Nikki Raney is of Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, not from NJ but of Jersey Shore fame. One of his more inspirational quotes is “These are rules to live by, shave last minute, put your shirt on last minute, haircut the day-of, maybe some tanning and the gym.” So in the following interior monologue drama I will be quoting the powerful, wise, hot, Mike “The Situation” using an invaluable Internet repository of his critical sayings.

The Situation is about to hold a press conference, a routine event for a man of his importance. He gets ready to start by saying to himself, “Everybody loves The Situation, and if you don’t love The Situation, I’m gonna make you love The Situation” – an important confidence builder. He realizes, however, that he has recently made a serious mistake, so his initial approach is to accept the blame. “I’m sort of a softy sometimes. I’m a sensitive dude,” he says to himself. The Situation then begins to realize that the conference is not going well, and he decides, “You need to be on your tip-top game,” so he proceeds to blame every one he can think of.  As the press conference draws to an end he concludes: “I was thinkin’ heavy fire and I didn’t wear my bulletproof vest and I just don’t know if I’m gonna make it.” But he develops a plan: “When you go into battle, you need to have some friends with you, so that just in case a grenade gets thrown at you, one of your buddies takes it first.”  Feeling his problem is thus solved, his mind wanders to a pleasurable thought – “eating chocolate chip cookies every night.”

Or is his problem not solved? Tune in frequently to Blue Jersey to find out the fate of our protagonist. As he wisely says, “Yo, I mean, this situation is gonna be indescribable, you can’t even describe the situation that you’re about to get into with The Situation.”

Iraq War: The President & New Jerseyans Speak Out

The $1 trillion Iraq war has gone from early successes, to the chaos of civil war, to a surge, and now to the draw-down to 50,000 troops. After eight years there has been immense suffering and loss on the part of Iraqi, American, and allied partners. President Obama spoke about the war Tuesday night from the Oval Office. New Jersey veterans, family of the fallen, and those who help returning vets have their opinions.

The President began his speech saying, “Good evening. Tonight I’d like to speak to you about the end of of our combat mission in Iraq.”

(continue reading below the fold)

Portraits of NJ Soldiers Fallen in Iraq

As the U. S. ends its combat mission in Iraq, we honor those New Jerseyans who served there. Below are sketches of a few who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Cpl. Michael E. Curtin, 23, Howell – March 2003 The first New Jerseyan killed during the war in Iraq, he was a graduate of Howell High School where he played on the school football team and enjoyed recreational hockey and baseball. He worked as a tool-and-die apprentice for three years before enlisting in 2001. He was killed when a suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint on a highway. His family said, “The outpouring of support, generosity and condolences on the loss of Michael has been truly overwhelming.”

(more below the fold)

Christiegate: Let Me Count the Blunders

In tearing up the Schundler-NJEA agreement, Governor Christie burned his relationship with former Commissioner Bret Schundler, who shares the governor’s education agenda, and with NJEA, a key partner in any reform. The agreement was not everything Christie wanted, but it was a start.  As a result, a working relationship with NJEA will be harder to re-establish, and other cabinet members are left wondering how to conduct their job without risking a public flogging (or worse) from their boss.

Grant Writer-in-Chief Christie showed terrible judgment in ordering a rewrite of this 1,000 page document over one weekend.  It was an invitation for screw ups, even with a large team on hand. Errors creep into a proposal, and there is the danger of making last-minute changes that have not been well thought out and vetted. And that is what happened. However, the Grant Writer-in-Chief blamed everyone else.

Lawyers are trained to be careful with their words. In public presentations prosecutors often read from prepared statements lest what they utter prejudice their own case. In his press conference on Wednesday former Federal Prosecutor Christie was injudicious to say the least. He made statements that were inaccurate, some of which will continue haunting him. Seemingly mild- mannered Schundler said about the Governor’s statements, “I believe the governor gets rolling, and….” A less polite name for this would be “motor mouth.”

Christie said at the press conference,”The mistake was made by a mid-level official at the State Department of Education.” He was acting as if he knew who committed the error, which apparently he did not. Commissioner Schundler later said he committed the error.

He also stated at the press conference “State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler gave the correct information to the U.S. Department of Education when giving his presentation two weeks ago.” The video disputes this statement. Schundler himself in e-mails and orally says he asked the governor not to make that claim, as it is inaccurate, and it would violate the grant regulations against submitting changes in the proposal after the deadline.

Christie placed himself in the least attractive light possible by blaming the grant reviewers and the Obama administration which were just following grant regulations in order to provide fairness for all proposals. A wiser and better leader would have avoided a pointless and inaccurate blame game.

With the loss of a $400 million infusion into our education system, and driven by ideology and bad judgment, Governor Christie faltered for all to see. It’s a sad moment for students and teachers. And it reflects poorly on a governor who has sought national media attention, but left his constituents at home shaking their heads.

Our Economy Sucks! Help!

“After you, Alphonse,” says Gaston. “No, Gaston, after you,” is the reply. And with neither willing to proceed before the other, both are stymied. Nothing gets done.

In February 2009 President Obama and Congress enacted the almost $1 billion American Recovery & Reinvestment Act to stimulate our economy.  Governor Corzine and the legislature also enacted stimulus measures, including a package of four bills in December 2008. These were smart measures but insufficient for the Great Recession.

Today we see continuing high unemployment, disastrously low home sales, a declining stock market, and the threat of a double-dip recession. In a speech yesterday Mr. Obama says his economic team will identify additional measures, but his administration is stymied by congress (particularly the Senate) which lacks enthusiasm for further stimulus. Our own legislature passed a homebuyers tax rebate program but was stymied by Governor Christie. Even the Fed is running out of tools to stimulate growth.

Consumers, concerned about their own job and fearing the economy, have increased their savings rate to 6% (it used to be about 0% four years ago) and are not consuming. Businesses, with similar concerns about the economy and with a lack of increased demand from consumers, are not investing or unable to get bank loans.  Hence Messieurs Alphonse and Gaston. Both are waiting for an improved economy.  

Given the upcoming midterm elections and the Republican mantra of  “Just Say No,” help from Washington, except for a possible SBA loan program, seems unlikely. Christie displays no interest in growing jobs (he is too busy cutting them) or in stimulating the economy (he is too busy with his narrow focus on the rich.) “Winston Smith” refers to this as “authoritarian kick down and kiss up.”

So we are left with our NJ legislators to create solutions. For small  businesses that want to grow but can not get bank loans a SBA type program would help. Stimulus targeted toward improving our infrastructure creates jobs more quickly and benefits our future. Expanding funding for job training and education helps employees and businesses and strengthens our competitiveness.  Investing in new technology firms has a similar impact. Even offering smart tax exemptions to new businesses can have benefits that exceed their cost.

Either our economy continues indefinitely in the doldrums, or somehow we have to get both Alphonse and Gaston through the door. Central Jersey Assembly Members Linda R. Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Wayne P. DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) are about to unveil their seven-bill Business Expansion and Jobs Plan aimed at helping small businesses weather the current economic climate. Lets hope that they and other legislators come up with innovative solutions. We can’t count on our self-serving governor to help, but as time goes on maybe even he will realize “It’s about the economy, stupid.”  

Christie and NJEA: Work Together for NJ

The failure of NJ to receive a Race to the Top (RTTT) award after two attempts further lays bare the rift between NJEA and Governor Christie – a rift that also existed with prior administrations but grew more bitter during the current year. Tenure reform, merit pay, teacher evaluation, layoffs, and student performance data are some of the divisive issues. The governor’s antagonistic attitude and frequent frontal attacks against teachers exacerbate the problem. For NJ to maintain excellence in education both groups need to work together for solutions.

The infamous failure during Christie’s re-write to answer properly a simple question regarding 2008-09 education funding resulted in the deduction of 4.8 points. The panel reviewer score sheet indicates that as the total number of points possible was 500, and NJ received a score of 437.8, reviewers deducted 62.2 points throughout the proposal. A look at the technical review form indicates the categories in which the reviewers deducted points and suggests areas that must be addressed in discussions between the governor and NJEA.

Securing local education associations (LEA) commitment and translating its participation into state-wide impact – 14 points deducted.  Reviewers in the first round noted that only 387 out of 656 districts agreed to participate and only four district presidents provided a signature, and they felt that “this lack of greater involvement will challenge NJ’s efforts to meet its goals.” In the second round they said that “while the lack of union support may create some problems, it now seems that implementation can proceed with existing LEA support.”

Using broad stakeholder support – 4 points deducted. Reviewers: “The lack of support from 269 districts and the NJEA leaders supports a low rating.”  

Fully implementing a state-wide data system – 10 points deducted. Reviewers: “NJ has implemented only 7 of the 12 elements of a state-wide system”

Using data to improve instruction – 5 points deducted. Reviewers: “NJ does not provide a researcher’s perspective on what studies the data will be used for.”

Using evaluation to inform key decisions – 3 points deducted. Reviewers: Participating local districts understand that they must use evaluation data to inform professional development, compensation, and tenure. With over 40% of LEA’s not participating, the potential for state-wide impact may be limited.  

In conclusion the reviewers say overall our plan “is generally strong and well-designed and meets the absolute priority as a comprehensive approach to education reform.” However, the reviewers add, “The biggest question for this proposal is whether the reforms will truly make a statewide impact in light of the non-support of local and state NEA affiliates.”

Certainly in NJ we have the foundation for continued excellence and even stronger results. To move forward the governor must end his vitriol and return to negotiations, and NJEA must lower its resistance to some of the reforms and recommit itself to seeking solutions. The NJEA and Schundler moved closer toward healing the rift until the governor intervened and tore up their agreement. This rift hurts students, teachers and all New Jerseyans.  

Christie’s Dumb Remarks (Worst?) Press Conference

Christie in a press release Friday said, “I was extremely disappointed to learn that the videotape of the Race to the Top presentation was not consistent with the information provided to me by the New Jersey Department of Education and which I then conveyed to the people of New Jersey. As a result, I ordered an end to Bret Schundler’s service as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner.” He does not specify what information was inconsistent.  

The issue revolves around the fact that the Request for Proposals asked for education funding expenditures during the 2008-09 period but the state provided information for a later period. A definite “No No” in a grant.

The Star Ledger reported on what he “conveyed to the People of NJ” in his Wednesday press conference. It certainly was not his finest hour. Below are his quotes:

“The mistake was made by a mid-level official at the state Department of Education.” Such does not appear likely. NJEA has demonstrated that the version of the proposal prior to Christie deciding to have it re-written included the accurate data. Others have shown that a completely different response appeared in the re-written, final version, which covered a later period and provided a more favorable view of Christie and NJ education funding.

“Officials at the U.S. Department of Education could have easily either called New Jersey or found the information on the internet.” It is not up to grant reviewers to call or search the internet when an organization fails to answer a question correctly. During the video tape of the reviewers’ conference with the NJ team the reviewer sought to find out if the correct information was located elsewhere in the proposal. In fairness to other applicants the reviewer was not offering to accept revised data after the deadline.

“That’s the stuff the Obama administration should answer for.” Rather than being petulant, he might have accepted defeat more gracefully. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in his grant awards announcement was complimentary toward those not funded, indicated very few points separated them from the successful applicants, but said, “We had many more competitive applications than money to fund them in this round.” He also hopes for a third round next year.

“State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler gave the correct information to the U.S. Department of Education when giving his presentation two weeks ago.” Schundler disputes this fact saying “he never told the Governor he tried to add new information to the state’s application – which would have been against the rules.” There is no indication in the video he tried to provide such information. He says he warned Christie both in e-mails and in person not to make such a claim.

Note to the Governor: Trying to re-write a large and complex proposal over a long weekend when so much is at stake is a fool’s errand. Errors creep in and there is the danger of making spur-of-the moment changes that have not been well thought out. Also why did NJ not send a delegation to the Technical Assistance Workshop? 41 other states did. It might have helped.  

“Pride, Precision, and Professionalism”

What events in NJ attract a crowd of over 600,000 people? Izod Arena holds 23,000 and Meadowlands stadium holds over 60,000. One of the few event I can think of is a result of intensive training, winnowing of candidates, incredible guts, supreme determination, laser-like focus, and the highest level of professionalism. Unfortunately it’s not our NJ politicians. It’s the air force Thunderbirds and colleagues – a total of 80 pilots who flew in the Atlantic City Air Show on Wednesday dazzling us with their skills, death-defying aerobatics, and precision teamwork.

It’s not that we haven’t had great political leaders in New Jersey. Today a person like Senator Loretta Weinberg who started as Assistant Administrator to the County of Bergen, and then went on to become a Teaneck Councilwoman, Assemblywoman, Senator and LG candidate is an example to emulate. Our own Jeff  Gardner first spent time learning the craft and then mobilized Democrats in his town to take over the Democratic committee.

Politics, above the introductory level, should be a vocation not an avocation. People with huge sums of money and zero political experience should not assume they are qualified for a high position. Those who are idolized only as a sports hero lack the training. Those who hold multiple positions lack the focus and are subject to conflicts of interest. They also need to understand what they do not know and avoid micromanagement, like thinking their office has the skills to direct the rewrite of a complex grant. As in all professions, politics requires training and ongoing education. Starting at a local level is an important step. Mastering new media is a virtual requirement today. Working smart and total immersion are necessary. A variety of groups including DFA provide the nuts and bolts for beginners. Garden State Equality recently offered a seminar to its constituency.

I don’t particularly want a Thunderbird pilot as a NJ governor or legislator. But I sure would like politicians to receive more training and education before assuming midlevel or high positions and then to display more professionalism, focus, dedication and teamwork. If such were to happen maybe our leaders would have a higher voter approval, more voter turn out at the polls, and a level of enthusiasm, interest, and respect somewhat closer to what the Thunderbirds receive. And it’s up to all of us to insist on higher standards.

To read about Wednesday’s event and view videos of the air show go to The Press of Atlantic City or the Thunderbirds website. Their motto: “Pride, Precision, and Professionalism.”