Claiming victory in school budgets’ defeat, Christie urges governing bodies to seek wage freezes from teachers

TRENTON – The most generous taxpayers in America said “stop!” in rejecting a majority of school budgets in yesterday’s elections, and public officials who fail to hear the human cry do so at their own peril, said Gov. Chris Christie.

“I would urge and encourage municipal governments to heed the words of the voters who voted yesterday,” the governor said at a noon press conference,  a day after voters rejected nearly 59 percent of the 537 school budgets presented statewide.

“I would encourage them to work with their local Board of Education and work with the local teachers’ union to try to effectuate a wage freeze… I think the voters spoke loudly and clearly to the concept of shared sacrifice.”

Christie committed to more mandate relief – including collective bargaining relief that respects the cap – in the form of reforms he said would be on the desks of legislative leadership by the time they return to full session in May. 

“The state continues to stand by its offer,” added the governor, who earlier this year proposed a $820 million cut in school aid to the FYI 2011 state budget. “The state will provide an additional 7.65% in state aid to those districts whose teachers accept a year-long wage freeze.

“It’s not too late to open the contract,” said Christie, who noted that 79% of the school budgets passed in those few districts where teachers accepted a year-long salary freeze, while 41% failed in those districts where teachers chafed against the wage freezes.

The New Jersey Education Association, for its part, refused to absorb a loss.

“He cut a billion dollars out of state school aid – we are 45th in the nation in terms of state school aid as it is – and now this governor comes and cuts, and puts all the pressure on local property taxes,” said Steve Wollmer, communications director for the NJEA. “And now he is turning around and blaming the teachers while refusing to extend the millionarires’ tax.”

But over the course of his hour-long presser in the outer chamber of the governor’s office, Christie returned repeatedly to his central argument based on yesterday’s results: voters want change and governmental reform.

“They were speaking loudly and clearly in historic numbers,” he said. “Lower taxes. Less spending. Less government. Voters said it clearly in November, and now even more clearly – percentage-wise – yesterday.” 

He refused to apologize to teachers and school children at the behest of New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian for his likening students to “drug mules” in the school budget debate.

“I don’t apologize, and I stand by my comments,” said the governor, who also dismisssed a question about whether he would agree to accept a salary reduction as a symbolic gesture of shared sacrifice.

In assessing yesterday’s results, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield), the minority conference leader, agreed with Christie.

“The governor is riding a wave of taxpayer discontent,” Bramnick said.

In Marlboro, a sprawling, Democratic-leaning suburban town in Monmouth County town where voters rejected the school budget, Mayor Jon Hornik said the local governing body is ready to carry out the will of the voters.

“They sent us a message -and that is that they want the school budget carved up with a fine tooth comb,” said Hornik, a Democrat. “Our message to the teachers’ union is we want to try to do that without eliminating teachers and reducing programs. That means we want the teachers to accept a wage freeze.”

The teachers in Marlboro as it stands wants a 4.25% wage increase.

But Patrick Murray, Monmouth University pollster and professor of political science, hesitated to chalk up Tuesday’s result as a vote against the teachers’ union and those teachers who did not accept a wage cut.

“We don’t know why they voted the way they did, we just know they did,” said Murray. “Clearly, New Jersey voters are really tired of business as usual and they want New Jersey to take a different direction. That’s why they turned out yesterday in record numbers.

“But I don’t think we can say definitely why these budgets went down,” Murray added. “Was it becasue teachers didn’t take the age freezes or because voters knew their budgets would create a tax increase? Or was it because they knew the governor’s reductions in school aid forced cuts to programs? Did people reject the budgets as a consequence of Christie’s cuts?”

The NJEA and their president, Barbara Keshishian, cited this week’s non-partisan state Office of Legislative Services report, which maintains that if every teacher took a pay freeze and contributed 1.5% of salary to health premiums, school districts “would still have to address a budget shortfall of at least $849.3 million” – or 77.9 percent of the proposed aid reduction.

“For weeks now, the governor has been deliberately misleading the public on this key policy issue,” Keshishian said. “He has claimed that if teachers would just accept a pay freeze, there would be no need for higher property taxes or layoffs of teachers and school staff. That is simply not true, and this report proves it.

“Yesterday’s school budget elections were a clear message from voters that they do not want to see higher property taxes, which is the direct result of the governor’s decision to cut state aid by more than a billion dollars next year.”

Claiming victory in school budgets’ defeat, Christie urges governing bodies to seek wage freezes from teachers