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Clerical error costs New Jersey millions in federal aid; education commissioner fired

Glenn Townes | 4/12/2011, 5:28 p.m.

An error in application paperwork cost the Garden State to lose about $400 million in federal education grants, state officials announced last week in Trenton. As a result of the costly gaffe, the state education commissioner was fired by Gov. Christopher Christie.

In the much heralded Race to the Top educational grant program, which provides federal grant money to states for education initiatives, New Jersey placed 11th--just behind the state of Ohio--and lost out on millions of much needed federal aid. Officials said a clerical error on the application deducted crucial points during the application process that would have otherwise enabled the state to receive a grant.

According to reports, officials were asked to compare the 2008 and 2009 school year budgets. The state submitted information comparing the 2010 and 2011 school budgets. Race to the Top officials deducted nearly five points for the blunder and the state ended up with a total score of 437.5 points out of a possible total score of 500. Officials said had the error been caught prior to the application being submitted, the state would have had enough points to beat out the state of Ohio and receive the funds.

Immediately after the announcement was made that New Jersey had missed the cut, Christie accepted blame for the mistake and said no one would be fired because of it. He also insisted that state officials had tried to correct the error during Education Commissioner Bret Schundler's presentation to Race to the Top officials earlier this year in Washington.

However, after a few days of controversy and public outrage regarding the costly mistake, calls for Schundler's dismissal increased. Additionally, a videotape of a meeting between federal and state education officials surfaced that refuted Christie's earlier assertion that efforts had been made by the state to correct the mistake. Christie terminated Schundler last week.

It was also later discovered that a draft of the state's original application had handwritten notes from Schundler removing key and pivotal information from the application.

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association in Trenton, N.J., blamed Christie for yanking the original application for the grant and submitting his own, which contained the costly clerical mistake.

"We've been disappointed since June 1, when the governor pulled a very strong application that we prepared and submitted a much weaker one," Baker said.

In a statement to the press shortly after it was announced that New Jersey just missed out on the funding due to an error, outspoken Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver sharply criticized the Christie administration for disappointing New Jerseyans.

Oliver said, "It's astonishing that the administration's failure to proofread their own homework would lead to losing out on this funding that could have gone such a long way toward improving our educational system."

In the metro area, only New York was awarded federal education grant aid under the Race to the Top program. Along with New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania failed to win any of the grants.