Bridgegate: Did opposition to Christie school reform play a role?

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Superman Steven Engravalle and an admirer.
Superman Steven Engravalle and an admirer.

What about Fort Lee  ticks people off?  Like all those aides in the governor’s office. The mayor, Mark Sokolich? Or state senator,  Loretta Weinberg—the woman Chris Christie said we  should “take a bat to”?  Some say it’s the Hudson Lights building project. Or, just maybe,  the school board’s disdain for charter schools and firing of a  superhero of school “reform,” Steven  Engravalle.

Okay, it’s a stretch. You’ve never heard of Engravalle, something that would disappoint him because he literally likes to think of himself as Superman. But the tale of Engravalle’s brief stint as Fort Lee’s school superintendent is an odd one—as has been his reaction on social media since Bridegate broke. A reader suggested I look into it. She pointed out  the planned Hudson Lights development project, with its high-rise apartment buildings, would overtax already crowded public schools in Fort Lee and create demand for charters—and that, in turn, would provide more opportunities for bond sales for Christie’s Wall Street pals.

Hudson Lights also has figured in Steve Kornacki and Brian Murphy’s theory of what prompted the sabotaging of  America’s busiest interstate crossing.  I wonder whether a combination of all of the above may have been discussed by Christie’s people in private conversations that started with someone saying, “What is it about Fort Lee, anyway? That town really ticks me off!” and ended with someone else saying, “You know, closing those Fort Lee lanes to the GWB would really teach the people in Fort Lee.”

Because, if it were never discussed, why would David Wildstein ever reply, “Got it” to Bridget Anne Kelly’s now famous, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

One of Christie's "reform" superheroes
One of Christie’s “reform” superheroes

Back to Engravalle: He spent a few glorious moments in the sunlight of borrowed publicity,  praised by Christie, the man he still calls “my governor,” and even appearing with Christie on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” where the educator rolled up his pants to show his Superman socks. That was homage to “Waiting for Superman,” the cult, pro-charter documentary worshipped by Christie’s school “reformers,” especially those who came here from New York, some just a step ahead of the sheriff.

So Engravalle must have believed his social media self-promotions in which he still calls himself “Game-changer; Rainmaker; 21st Century School Leader; Champion of Real Education Reform.”

But then it all crashed.

Less than two weeks before Engravalle appeared with Christie on the Town Hall/Morning Joe Show in March, 2012, the 34-year-old schools superintendent argued with his employers, the Fort Lee school board, about  a resolution opposing charter schools—a favorite “reform” of the governor. Many school boards had done that, especially in light of Christie’s record of favoring charters over conventional public schools.

“[The resolution] goes to the governor, it goes to your state legislators, it goes to the Department of Education, it goes to all other districts in Bergen County,”  said Nancy Stern, a former board member, during the debate. “That’s the effect it has, it’s not just nine people saying I agree.”

Although he said he wouldn’t want one in his town,  Engravalle dismissed the anti-charter resolution as “silly” and praised charter schools because, he said, they generate “healthy competition in the market.”  A real Christie/Chris Cerf/Cami Anderson kind of guy.

Maybe it was Engravalle’s defense of charters that won him a seat next to Christie on Joe Scarborough’s show or maybe it was simply the choice of the place for the Town Hall, Fort Lee High. But Engravalle’s appearance was preceded by a film produced by “Morning Joe” in which the educator was praised for turning the district around.

While Christie nodded in admiration, Engravalle told how, when he was a classroom teacher,  he was criticized  by other teachers because he worked too hard for the children. It was the union, he said. They tried to stop devoted teachers like him. “But all I needed were the children,” he said, adding:  “It was meant as a brick but I used it to build an empire.”

A few days later, Christie named Engravalle to a state commission he created to study whether eligibility for free and reduced lunch should be used to measure poverty of school children, a key issue for the governor who likes to cut money to all schools, especially those who need it the most. The measure also is a pesky way of showing how charter schools manage to keep out the poorest children. When I talked to Engravalle then, he told me he had accompanied Christie to a number of town halls, a sort of poster boy for the governor’s anti-union views. Like Christie, he says, he doesn’t believe money makes a difference in education, something that will come as a surprise to private schools, like Delbarton, that charge upwards of $30,000 a year in tuition.

As Jersey Jazzman noted in a blog written at the time, Engravalle had only been the interim schools superintendent in Fort Lee for four months when he bragged about being Superman—and he changed the district’s culture?  Turned the schools around? His predecessor—like many other New Jersey superintendents—resigned, at least partially because of the salary caps Christie had imposed on more experienced school chiefs.

Within a year, Engravalle was gone, forced to resign by the school board that hired him. The primary issue was his absences from work, although the settlement agreement contains a non-disclosure clause and all the reasons can’t be known. He was absent some of the time because his wife was dying of cancer; after her death, he also took two months medical leave—during which he made speaking engagements and attended conventions. He considers himself an expert on technology and now runs a webzine called “iSchoolLeader.”

Sounds like the kind of guy who would call his pal the governor, either to ask for a job with education chief Chris Cerf, a true devotee of Superman, or to complain about the dirt done him in Fort Lee.  I tried to reach Engravalle through social media but he hasn’t responded.  He has, however, used Twitter to reveal how he feels about Christie and Fort Lee.

Engravalle's Twitter profile page
Engravalle’s Twitter profile page

“Fort Lee is full of dirty Dems,” he wrote. Engravalle also tweeted, “Most Fort Lee constituents can’t/don’t vote. That is not a town anyone would worry about at the polls.” He doesn’t believe “my governor” would retaliate against a “no name mayor” like Sokolich. ”Bravo to my Governor for walking the talk,” he wrote after Christie’s marathon press conference.

Engravalle dismissed the idea that the school children he loved so much were “inconvenienced” by being stranded on buses. Fort Lee, he wrote, “has done much worse things.”

Other tweets:

“Can we get serious? We are talking about a TRAFFIC JAM. It’s not like guns were funneled to Mexican Drug Cartels and used to kill Americans.”

“(Christie) takes responsibility even when he doesn’t have to; (Obama) has early-Alzheimer’s, yet he’s given a pass.”

“That community wrongs many people. Check out their history. It’s very possible she”—Kelly–—“ had her own issues with” the town.

“(Fort Lee) the victim? Quite a change from how that community victimizes all who try to help them”

“I’m long away from (Fort Lee) because it’s a terrible place full of awful people.”

Fort Lee just ticks off a lot of people.

6 comments

  1. Newarkbluesman

    Logic tells me if the governor didn’t know about the bridge,maybe he doesn’t know his commissioner is busy selling Newark schools to friends.But then maybe next they will be selling us a Bridge.Sad state of affairs now taxpayers will be on the hook for the Governors council.

  2. Bill Wolfe

    Bob – I think you have the logic on the relationship between real estate development and Wall Street desires to finance Charter schools exactly backward. You write:

    “… the planned Hudson Lights development project, with its high-rise apartment buildings, would overtax already crowded public schools in Fort Lee and create demand for charters—and that, in turn, would provide more opportunities for bond sales for Christie’s Wall Street pals.”

    The Big Money is is real estate and gentrification. Yes, there is money in profits from Charter Schools. But it pales in comparison to the real estate economic development market.

    Everyone knows that quality schools attract an upscale white demographic.

    Bob Braun: I understand what you’re saying and you may be right but the bond trading class is pushing charter school financing right now. I am not at all sure the west and south wards of Newark will be gentrified any time soon.

    Accordingly, the push to privatize schools needs to be as more directly part of a strategy to destroy public school in an effort to create an appearance of a quality school that would attract settlers. This strategy boosts real estate markets by changing the racial, ethnic and economic profile of a community.

    The school, as they say, is the “magnet”.

    The money is in the real estate, not the schools.

    The move to privatize schools is part of a real estate and social engineering strategy.

    • Becca Fields

      I understand that school property purchased can be repurposed after 10 years. There is a lot of real estate up for potential redevelopment if that is the case. Privatizing public education while actively promoted by some as a way o solve he woes of public ed, may just be a stepping stone or a means to a long term gain for others. I see no reaon to presume singular motives. Rather a confluence of market forces that will make our children pay the price or their greed.

      Bob Braun: Becca, thanks for your insights. Consider this–years ago, then Mayor Sharpe James developed a program by which abandoned housing in the same South Ward, owned by the city, could be sold to developers for $2,000 a parcel for redevelopment. The owners would then sell the new or refurbished homes at market rate and keep the profit. Because James allegedly had an affair with one of the developers–something not proven at the trial I attended every day–Christie indicted James and he was convicted in a travesty of a trial. It is no secret that, one day, the South Ward will be gentrified and land values will skyrocket. It is near assets like Route 78, Weequahic Park, Beth Israel Medical Center.

  3. Tracy Mattei

    What is the point if this article?
    Bob Braun: Obvious. To make you wonder what the point of the article is.

  4. Pingback: Newark’s War Zone | A Light at the End of the Tunnel

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