TRENTON - In his first meeting with the head of the powerful state teachers union, Gov. Christie on Monday called for the firing of a Bergen County union leader who sent a memo joking about the governor's death.
Barbara Keshishian, president of the New Jersey Education Association, had sought a meeting with the governor to issue a personal apology for a letter signed by Joseph Coppola, head of the Bergen County teachers union, according to NJEA spokesman Steve Baker.
Christie and Keshishian met in the governor's office in Trenton for about 15 minutes.
Christie accepted Keshishian's apology but said if they were going to move on in a constructive way, the governor would like to see Coppola removed from the union, said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak.
Keshishian responded that that would not happen, ended the meeting, and then left, according to Drewniak.
"I don't think we're asking a lot," Drewniak said.
The memo from the Bergen County Education Association to its locals included a closing prayer that read:
"Dear Lord this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays. I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor."
Drewniak said that if a student had made similar comments about a principal, he or she would undoubtedly be suspended and investigated by police.
"Do we think it was a threat? No, but it was a wish," Drewniak said.
Baker called the event a "private meeting" and declined to elaborate on what the two talked about or the tone of the meeting, except to say that the NJEA apologized for the letter.
Baker said Keshishian did not walk out of the meeting but simply left when it was over.
Baker said Keshishian does not have the authority to fire Coppola but has also made clear she would not call on union members to remove him.
"He's apologized. He's recognized it was an inappropriate statement to make," Baker said. "It's time that we return our focus to the issues New Jersey needs to be dealing with - a profound lack of funding for our schools [and the] deep impacts cuts will have on students and local public schools in New Jersey."
Christie has proposed cutting $820 million in state aid to public schools as part of an effort to close an $11 billion budget hole in a total budget of about $29 billion. Some districts would lose all of their state aid as a result of the cuts, if the governor's budget is approved by the Legislature.
The governor has aimed his rhetoric squarely at the teachers union, calling for school districts to reopen contracts with teachers to negotiate wage freezes and other concessions to save money.
Christie has said he would reward school districts where teachers agree to salary freezes. The NJEA is instead calling on the governor to restore a temporary surcharge on those earning more than $400,000 a year, which expired under Gov. Jon S. Corzine.
At an event in Princeton earlier Monday, Christie called on voters to reject school budgets that do not include concessions from teachers.
Voters will have the chance to approve or reject school budget proposals in local elections on April 20, but voter turnout is traditionally very low for the elections.