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At N.J. school, Christie's remarks political, personal

Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie reiterated many of the themes of his campaign in an appearance at a suburban New Jersey high school yesterday, and offered glimpses of his personal life at the end of the campaign trail.

Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie reiterated many of the themes of his campaign in an appearance at a suburban New Jersey high school yesterday, and offered glimpses of his personal life at the end of the campaign trail.

Christie told a crowd of hundreds of students at Steinert High School in Hamilton, Mercer County, that his priorities were cutting taxes and government spending.

He struck a humble tone, telling the teenagers that "you're never quite prepared for this."

He recounted that he and his wife looked at each other shortly after they had learned he was headed for victory on election night, and that she said, "Oh, my God, you're going to be governor."

Asked by a student how he defeated Gov. Corzine - who had the advantages of wealth and the support of national Democrats, including President Obama - Christie said, "I have absolutely no idea."

Christie, who was joined by Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Guadagno and a handful of state lawmakers from the region, told students he wanted them to be able to afford to build lives in New Jersey as they grow older. Christie has four children, the eldest a teenager who now asks to be dropped off behind school so the new security detail following the family does not draw too much attention.

Responding to a student's question, Christie, speaking in the kind of blue-collar New Jersey town that can swing between supporting Democrats and Republicans, said he did not feel the election amounted to a referendum on Obama.

On education, Christie said he planned to maintain funding to public schools and to increase aid to higher education over the next four years. He also said students in cities are entitled to a quality education.

"Those kids deserve the same sort of education you're getting here in Hamilton," Christie said. "If we don't change that, it's hurting us socially, it's hurting us economically, and it's just not fair."

In his four public appearances since the Nov. 3 election, Christie has gone to schools twice, stressing the importance of education to his agenda. He has listed improving urban schools as his third priority, after cutting taxes and boosting the economy. Yesterday, he told reporters he would not cut aid for kindergarten-through-12th-grade education in the next budget, despite facing a deficit that could top $8 billion.

Christie also favors school vouchers and charter schools to give urban students more options. He said competition would force failing public schools to "change or perish."

On whether the gasoline tax - one of the lowest in the nation - should increase, Christie said, "Not under me," drawing applause.

Asked several times by different students what his priorities would be, Christie said he planned to lower taxes to bring more jobs to New Jersey and return more money to families.

In a meeting with reporters after the event, Christie promised tough negotiations with labor unions representing teachers and state workers. He said the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers and opposes many of the urban education ideas he has backed, "has been a strong advocate for the status quo."

"They need to get realistic about the fact that change is coming," Christie said.

In dealing with state workers, Christie said he would be fair, but added, pointedly, "I'm not going to be a pushover, and that's going to be a change."

When negotiating with state workers' unions, Christie said, he and Guadagno "are there to represent the taxpayers."

Corzine was often criticized as being too close to unions.

Christie said he would not be bound by Corzine's pledge not to lay off any state employees until 2011. He said he would avoid layoffs if possible, "if we can reach a fair agreement."

Responding to Christie's statements, NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said, "It's not accurate to say that NJEA has been an advocate for the status quo. We've been an advocate for great public schools for every child."

Baker said the NJEA has a long history of pushing for high standards and excellent professional development for teachers and other school employees.

"The first challenge the Christie administration will face is to maintain the commitment to public education that has been a hallmark of New Jersey," Baker said.

Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey-area director for the Communications Workers of America, said that ultimately, negotiations with Christie would come down not to a question of who is more or less confrontational, but to the substance of the issues.

"The fact of the matter is, layoffs of middle-class workers who provide direct services saves very, very little money and has a very negative impact on the workers, the public, and the economy, so I would want to put this discussion within that context," she said.

Responding to a question from a reporter, Christie also said he did not intend to retain Attorney General Anne Milgram in his new cabinet.