Christie Calls For Longer School Year

Gov. Chris Christie

Gov. Chris Christie

TRENTON – As the Legislature continued its investigation of a widening George Washington Bridge scandal, Gov. Chris Christie delivered his annual State of the State address on Tuesday.

The Republican governor acknowledged that “mistakes were clearly made” and said he would cooperate with “appropriate inquiries” into the scandal, but shifted focus to changes he wants to make in the state’s education and public worker pension system.

Christie called for an expanded school day and shorter summer break for public school students in the only major new policy initiative of his speech. “If student achievement is lagging at the exact moment when we need improvement more than ever in order to compete in the world economy, we should take these steps — every possible step — to boost student achievement,” the governor said.

The state’s largest teacher’s union is open to the idea, but Christie did not provide any details of his plan. “We welcome a comprehensive discussion with all stakeholders about how best to provide the education [students] need and deserve,” said New Jersey Education Association President Wendell Steinhauer.

Steinhauer noted one major obstacle to extending the school year: “Currently, far too many school buildings have no air conditioning. That already creates a challenging and often dangerous environment for students and school staff,” he said. “Expanding the school year into the summer would greatly exacerbate that problem and require immediate action to ensure that every student has a safe, healthy environment that is conducive to learning.”

Christie angered Democratic lawmakers by suggesting that the state cannot afford to meet its pension obligations to public workers. “If we do not choose to reduce our soaring pension and debt service costs, we will miss the opportunity to improve the lives of every New Jersey citizen, not just a select few,” Christie said.

In 2011, Christie and Democrats had reached an agreement to shore up the state’s underfunded public pension system. In exchange for greater contributions from workers, the state promised to make increasing payments into the system to restore its fiscal stability. Last year’s $1.7 billion state contribution is scheduled to rise to $2.4 billion in 2014.

“The pension payment is an obligation to hundreds of thousands of people who worked here,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

Both the Assembly and state Senate have created special investigatory committees to review the facts surrounding the September closure of access lanes for the George Washington Bridge. Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) will lead the committees, which have subpoena power.

The Assembly committee retained former Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar, who prosecuted the corruption case against former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it was conducting its own review of the bridge scandal after the Port Authority Office of Inspector General referred the matter. Christie announced Thursday that the state has hired the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP to assist with his own internal review.

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