Patersonians Pack the House for a Governor They Didn't Vote For
Tuesday, March 12, 2013 • 2:25pm
PATERSON, NJ – In a 4th Ward church packed with about 700 people, Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday asserted that Paterson’s struggling public schools were not failing because of insufficient state funding.
“There may be bad decisions being made, but it isn’t because of a lack of money,’’ said Christie during his first town-hall style meeting in New Jersey’s third most populous city.
In response to questions from the audience, Christie also indicated his administration plans to keep control over Paterson schools until improvements are made. Moreover, the governor said the state would withhold funding from Paterson’s municipal government if aid provided to the city were not “spent the right way.’’
Christie spent about 100 minutes at St. Luke’s Baptist Church on Carroll Street in a meeting that city officials and residents have been requesting for the past two years. People huddled under umbrellas and lined up in the rain more than an hour before the session was scheduled to begin. The church sanctuary quickly reached its legal capacity of 500 occupants and the overflow was directed to space in the basement and a side room, where folks could watch on video monitors. The crowd included elected officials, community leaders, business representatives and regular residents eager to hear what the governor had to say.
In his opening remarks, Christie did not mention some of the city’s most pressing issues, like crime and a deficit-plagued municipal government. But the governor did acknowledge his lack of popularity in Paterson, saying that there were more people in the church on Tuesday than the number of city residents who voted for him in 2009. It was a joke, but he wasn’t that far off. The governor said he got 2,213 votes in Paterson in his first gubernatorial election, compared to 17,334 for his Democratic opponent, Jon Corzine. This year, he said he hoped to do better.
“The bar is pretty low,’’ Christie said. “I got 11 percent last time. Let’s see what happens.’’
After speaking for 25 minutes, the governor removed his suit jacket and opened the floor for questions from the audience. Scores of people raised their hands.
Among them was Lisbeth Minaya, a student from Eastside High School, who asked the governor about the devastating state funding cuts in 2010 that resulted in the layoffs of hundreds of Paterson teachers and the elimination of some educational programs.
Christie’s initial response was that he was not aware of the cuts that the student described. But Minaya persisted. “I don’t even have books in my classes,’’ she said.
“Do you know how much money we spent in Paterson over the years?’’ Christie responded, saying the city school district gets hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding.
Minaya’s question came right after Board of Education member Jonathan Hodges asked about when the stae would stop treating Patersonians “as second-class citizens” and end what he called “21 years of failed state takeover” of city schools.
Christies quickly targeted Hodges' choice of word. “The state intervened to stop the students from being treated as second-class citizens,’’ the governor said. “I don’t want to keep control of this district a day longer than I have to,’’ Christie added. “When we give up, then you’ll be second-class citizens.’’
Third Ward resident Careen Lazarus asked the governor whether Paterson’s 2011 overtime scandal had affected the amount of Transition Aid that his administration awarded to the city government.
But Christie said Paterson was the only city in the state to get an increase in the Transition aid, adding that the aid came with a new set of conditions for the way municipal government conducts business.
“We want to have greater control over expenses,’’ the governor said of his administration’s fiscal oversight in Paterson. “If we don’t see improvement we’ll withhold some of the transition aid to make sure it’s spent the right way.’’
Christie also praised the City Council and Mayor Jeffery Jones for changes they made in the past two years. “I’ve seen some progress and I want to see more progress,’’ the governor said. “What I’d love to see is for them to get off transition aid.’’
Christie took 14 questions from the session, including some about state and national issues. For the most part, Patersonians spared Christie from the confrontational moments that have made some of the governor’s other town hall meetings YouTube sensations. The one moment of friction arose when audience member Mike Henry repeatedly heckled the governor by calling out: “Fix the public schools.’’
After Henry persisted, local police and church security staff started to remove Henry from the church. But Christie intervened, telling them to let him stay.