Thursday was a busy day for the Legislature in Trenton. The day began with a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Education Committees, which took testimony from invited guests on the issue of school safety and security. Several legislative committees also met that day, and advanced various bills impacting local school districts.

Experts Testify on School Safety and Security Dr. Lamont Repollet, Acting Commissioner of the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE), kicked off the hearing, and was joined by Assistant Commissioner for Field Services Robert Bumpus, and Director of the NJDOE Office of School Preparedness and Emergency Planning Ben Castillo. They discussed various new laws and initiatives being implemented by the NJDOE which are aimed at enhancing school safety and security, including the development of a School Safety Specialist Academy and the roll-out of the Class Three Special Law Enforcement Officer program. The department also placed a strong emphasis on school climate, and stressed the importance of maintaining a safe school environment and promoting social-emotional learning in order to maximize student achievement.

Michael Vrancik, NJSBA’s director of governmental relations, represented the Association at the hearing. Vrancik circulated copies of the 2014 report of the NJSBA’s School Security Task Force, which has served as an important resource for districts throughout New Jersey and other states. He informed the committees that NJSBA is currently reviewing and updating the report in the wake of the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida. In highlighting the fiscal constraints hampering school districts’ ability to invest in school security improvements, Vrancik expressed support for the bond referendum legislation, S-2293, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney that would provide $250 million for school facility security grants. Vrancik also encouraged the committee to consider loosening or waiving the two-percent property tax levy cap to provide districts with greater flexibility to make investments in school security.

Other speakers at the two-hour hearing included representatives of the N.J. State Police, the N.J. Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, the N.J. Association of School Administrators, the N.J. Association of School Resource Officers, the N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association, the N.J. American Academy of Pediatrics, the Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth Program at Rutgers, the N.J. Catholic Conference, the Orthodox Union, and the AFT-NJ. An archived recording of the hearing can be accessed through the N.J .Legislature’s website by clicking here.

The committees hosted a joint public hearing on Monday, April 9 at Camden County College in Cherry Hill. A second public hearing will be held Monday, April 23 at 3 p.m. at Rutgers University-Newark, Paul Robeson Campus Center, 350 Martin Luther King, Jr., Blvd, in Newark. Individuals wishing to testify can register by calling the Office of Legislative Services at (609) 847-3850.

Senate Higher Education CommitteeThe committee released the following measures, both which are supported by the NJSBA. They have been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration of their fiscal impact.

School Readiness and Workforce Development ProgramS-371 establishes in the N.J. Department of Labor and Workforce Development (LWD) a five-year two-generational school readiness and workforce development pilot program. The purpose of the program is to foster family economic self-sufficiency in low-income households by delivering academic and job readiness support services across two generations in the same household. The commissioner of LWD will designate the municipalities that will participate in the pilot program, each of which must have a poverty rate that is at least twice the statewide average. The pilot program will include services such as: early learning programs; adult education; child care; housing; job training; transportation; financial literacy; and other related support services such as health and mental health services. The program will also include a long-term plan to adopt a model for the delivery of these services on a statewide basis. The bill establishes an interagency working group to oversee the pilot program and submit a report four years following the bill’s effective date that includes information on program outcomes, and includes a recommendation on program expansion.

Teacher Loan Redemption ProgramS-1831 establishes a loan redemption program in the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) to allow a teacher to redeem a portion of his NJCLASS loan amounts for service as a teacher in a high-need field in a “chronically failing school” in New Jersey. NJSBA believes that incentives, such as grants and loans, should be made available to attract outstanding students to the teaching profession, particularly in those areas of critical shortage. The Association also believes that loans to students who agree to teach a certain number of years in areas of critical shortage should be forgiven.

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee The committee advanced the following bills that are of particular relevance to NJSBA and its member districts:

Moving County Colleges Out of SEHBPS-2455, sponsored by Senate President Sweeney, would transfer county college employees from the School Employees Health Benefits Program (SEHBP) to the State Health Benefits Plan (SHBP).

While not directly impacted by S-2455, the NJSBA testified in support of the legislation as it highlights a problem currently plaguing school districts across the state: the soaring cost of providing employees with health benefits through the School Employees Health Benefits Program. As previously reported in School Board Notes, SEHBP premiums have risen significantly over the past couple of years (8.4 percent in plan year 2017 and 13 percent in plan year 2018), while premiums in the SHBP have been held essentially flat. Much of the difference can be attributed to the unwillingness or inability of the SEHBP Plan Design Committee (PDC) to adopt sensible reforms that would mitigate premium increases. The SEHBP and SHBP PDCs are boards consisting of equal number of representatives from both labor and management that are tasked with considering and adopting changes to the state-sponsored health benefits. They were established through “Chapter 78” and are intended to be the conduit through which both plans would effectuate cost-saving reforms. However, the SHBP PDC has been much more aggressive and successful in doing so than the committee overseeing the SEHBP’s plan options.

Nearly half of New Jersey’s school districts procure health benefits through the SEHBP. NJSBA argued before the committee that the recent premium increases have resulted in increasingly more financial resources being dedicated to health care, rather than to direct educational programs, staffing and services. They have also had an adverse impact on the state budget, as the rising cost of retiree health benefits provided through SEHBP have crowded out other important policy priorities, such as fully funding the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) and ramping up the state’s pension payments. NJSBA urged the Legislature to consider the impact that dedicating limited financial resources to employee health benefits have had on school district finances, property taxes, and employee compensation.

Gas Tax Exemption for School BusesS-1697 exempts fuel used for the operation of school buses from the state’s fuel taxes. Under the bill, the exemption from the tax applies to fuel that is used for school buses operated for the transportation of pupils to or from school or a school-sponsored activity or event by a religious or other charitable organization or corporation.

Currently, if a school district operates its own school buses, the school district uses tax-exempt fuel for those buses. However, if a school district uses contracted school bus transportation, the contractor does not receive a fuel tax exemption. Thus, the contractor includes the cost of the fuel, including the fuel taxes the contractor pays, as part of the contract cost with the school district. According to the Office of Legislative Service, by exempting certain purchases of fuel made by private school bus operators, local school districts that contract for transportation services with private school bus operators may realize cost savings through a decrease in future contract costs if the savings realized by such operators from the purchase of the newly tax-exempt fuel are passed along to the districts. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Assembly Appropriations Committee The committee continued the advancement of a package of bills related to student health and nutrition, each of which has already passed the full Senate. It also released a measure requiring panic alarms in all schools.

Meal Denial ReportingA-3502/S-1896 requires every school district to biannually report to the N.J. Department of Agriculture the number of students who are denied school breakfast or school lunch. Under current law, if a public school student’s school breakfast or school lunch bill is in arrears, the district must contact the student’s parent or guardian to provide notice of the arrearage and provide a period of 10 school days to pay the amount due. If the parent or guardian does not make full payment by the end of the 10 school days, the district then must provide a second notice that school breakfast or school lunch, as applicable, will not be served to the student beginning one week from the date of this second notice unless payment is made in full.

Non-Participation Report/Community Eligibility ProvisionA-3503/S-1895requires every school district in which there is at least one school that qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), but is not implementing it, to report the reasons for nonparticipation in writing to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the NJDOE. The CEP is a federally-funded reimbursement alternative for eligible, high-poverty local educational agencies and schools participating in both the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and school districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting individual household applications.

Summer Meal ProgramsA-3504/S-1897 expands summer meal programs to all school districts where 50 percent or more of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. Specifically, the legislation requires every school district, in which 50 percent or more of the students enrolled in the district on or before the last school day before October 16 of the preceding school year were eligible for free- or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program or the federal School Breakfast Program, to become a sponsor or site of the federal Summer Food Service Program.

No later than one year after the bill’s enactment, a school district that is subject to the bill’s requirements must submit an application to the state Department of Agriculture to become a sponsor of the Summer Food Service Program or documentation that the school district will become a site under an existing approved sponsor. A school district subject to the provisions of this bill must become a sponsor of the Summer Food Service Program or become a site under an existing approved sponsor no later than two years following the bill’s enactment. The bill permits the Department of Agriculture to grant a waiver from the requirements of this bill to a school district that establishes: (1) it lacks the staff, facilities, or equipment to be a sponsor; or (2) it lacks the means to finance such staff, facilities, or equipment. The department may also grant a waiver for one year to a school district if a different sponsor currently runs the federal Summer Food Program within the same community.

The Summer Food Service Program is a federal program that reimburses sponsors for administrative and operational costs to provide meals for children 18 years of age and younger during periods when they are out of school for 15 or more consecutive school days. The program is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and administered by the state Department of Agriculture. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Breakfast After the BellA-3506/S-1894 requires a public school, in which 70 percent or more of the students enrolled are eligible for free or reduced price meals under the National School Lunch Program or the federal School Breakfast Program, to establish a “Breakfast after the Bell” program. Under current law, a school with 20 percent or more of those eligible students must have a school breakfast program. The bill provides that, within six months of the bill’s effective date, each school district must submit a plan to the NJ Department of Agriculture for the establishment of a “Breakfast after the Bell” program for all grades at each school that is subject to the provisions of the bill. A school district must establish the program no later than the first full school year after submission of the plan. NJSBA supports the bill.

School Panic AlarmsA-764, entitled “Alyssa’s Law,” requires public school buildings to be equipped with an emergency light and panic alarm for use during a security emergency. The alarm would be linked to local law enforcement, as well as an exterior emergency light which would illuminate when the alarm button is pressed. The state, through the Schools Development Authority, would incur costs associated with installation of these panic alarms. This legislation has passed both houses in previous sessions only to be vetoed by the governor. It is the hope of the sponsors that the new governor will be more receptive to this proposal. The bill is named in honor of Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year old student, who was killed on February 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. NJSBA supports this bill.

Assembly State and Local Government Committee The committee advanced the following bills concerning nominating petition for school elections. Both measures have passed the full Senate. If posted and approved by the full Assembly, they will head to the governor’s desk.

Joint Petitions and Bracketing for School ElectionsA-2030/S-868 would permit candidates for a board of education to circulate a nominating petition jointly and to be bracketed together on the ballot. Under the bill, two or more candidates could sign or circulate, or both sign and circulate, a joint petition of nomination for the same term. When two or more such candidates also wish to be bracketed together on a ballot, they must first so notify the secretary of the board of education in writing prior to the drawing for position on the ballot. The candidates who are bracketed together will share a position on the ballot as a group and have their names printed together in the appropriate location on the ballot. The legislation would also permit a short nonpolitical designation of the candidates’ principles on their nominating petitions and on the ballot.

S-868 passed the full Senate in March. Similar measures have been approved by the full Legislature in recent years, but none of them obtained the governor’s signature. Most recently, then-Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed legislation in July 2017 that would have permitted joint nominating petitions and bracketing for school board candidates, citing concerns that the bracketing of the candidates and the use of a three-word designation may politicize school elections. However, the governor did leave the issue open for further study and deliberation by recommending that a pilot program be established that would allow candidates in one school election in each county to circulate petitions jointly and be bracketed together under a designation. Read more here.

Email Address on Nominating PetitionA-3461/S-1974 requires that a petition of nomination of a candidate for any state, county, school, or municipal elective public office must include a functioning email address for the candidate. According the sponsor’s statement, this addition to the nominating petitions of such candidates would enhance the voters’ access to those candidates, particularly first-time candidates, and allow voters and organizations to contact candidates’ campaign.

Assembly Health and Senior Service Committee The committee advanced the following bill, supported by NJSBA, which concerns the immunization of NJ pupils:

Student ImmunizationsA-3818 clarifies statutory exemptions from mandatory immunizations for students. Under the bill, provisions under current state law which require the immunization of students from preschool through postsecondary education are to provide for an exemption from such mandatory immunization based on medical or religious reasons. In the case of a medical exemption, the bill requires a written statement submitted to the school by a physician, doctor of osteopathy, advanced practice nurse, or physician assistant that indicates: (1) the vaccine is medically contraindicated for a specific period of time; and (2) the reasons for the medical contraindication, which are to be based on a valid medical reason as determined by the commissioner of health. The student will be exempt from the immunization requirement for the period of time indicated in the written statement. In the case of a religious exemption, the bill requires the student or the student’s parent or guardian, if the student is a minor, to submit documentation explaining how the administration of the vaccine conflicts with the bona fide religious tenets or practices of the student, parent, or guardian.