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Will He or Won't He? Christie Plays Coy About Tenure Reform Bill

Gov. Chris Christie Gov. Chris Christie (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)

He didn’t say he’d sign it outright, but Gov. Chris Christie yesterday indicated he could endorse the new teacher tenure bill passed by the Legislature this week -- while fighting to end teacher seniority rights another day.

Christie was asked late at a town hall meeting in a Brick middle school why he would support the bill passed by both the Senate and the Assembly this week if it retained teachers’ seniority rights, known as “last in, first out” (LIFO).

The governor has long said LIFO protections in the case of layoffs needed to end in New Jersey, and the decision by Democratic leaders to preserve the rule in this bill -- under pressure from teachers unions and others -- was seen as a major compromise.

In his first public comments since the Legislature’s votes, Christie yesterday said he had yet to make a final decision on the bill, and an administration official said it was unlikely he’d announce his decision this week, let alone hold a bill-signing event.

But he did say he could have it both ways: sign the bill crafted by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), while taking up the LIFO fight separately in the future. The bill for the first time would directly tie tenure protections to whether teachers consistently draw positive evaluations, some of which based on student performance.

“The question is whether there are enough good things in there to sign it, and I have to make that decision,” he said.

“But either way, whether I sign or veto, I will not give up the fight to change that rule,” he said. “It just doesn’t take into account what we should all be thinking comes first: we want the best, we want the best for our kids.”

Most Statehouse observers, in and out of the Legislature, expect that Christie will sign the bill. The fact that every Republican Senator and Assembly member voted for the measure, giving it a unanimous approval, only further assured the party’s standard bearer would go along.

But Christie has championed the need to end LIFO from the start of his term, and it was one of the biggest sore points in his often-combative relationship with the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has said LIFO is sacrosanct.

Yesterday, he did not back off on that contention, albeit without any of the edge against the NJEA. And he did not say how he would pursue ending LIFO rights, whether in legislative process or regulatory one.

“A lot of these decisions should be based on merit,” Christie said to the questioner. “If you are working hard and doing your job really well, you stay. If you are not quite as good, you should go. That’s the way it works in every other profession.”

The comment drew loud applause from the audience, which was largely supportive of the governor on all topics yesterday.

Still, ever coy, when Christie was pressed by the audience member again, Christie he didn’t commit on what he would do. “Alright, we’ll see what will happen,” he said.

It was one of his less partisan moments in a town hall where he blasted away at Democrats for their $31.7 million budget plan approved this week, one he all but assured he would contest, whether with a line-item veto or an outright one.

He said he would go on a summer tour to tout his proposal for an income tax cut and also the Democrats’ own initial proposal for a property tax credit, all but left out of their final budget bill.

“I will point out to every living breathing New Jerseyans that these folks lied to you, they lied to me,” Christie said. “And I am going to kick their rear ends from one of the state to the other until you get your tax cut.”