The state Senate on Monday, Feb. 26, gave final legislative approval to a measure aimed at protecting New Jersey students by keeping individuals with a history of sexual misconduct or child abuse out of the state’s public schools. The bill, S-414/A-3318, now heads to Gov. Phil Murphy.

Protecting Students from Sexual Abuse and Misconduct The measure requires school districts, charter schools, nonpublic schools, and contracted service providers (“employers”) to review the employment history of prospective employees to ascertain allegations of child abuse or sexual misconduct. It explicitly prohibits such employers from hiring a person serving in a position which involves regular contact with students unless the employer conducts a review of the employment history of the applicant by contacting former and current employers and requesting information regarding child abuse and sexual misconduct allegations.

When seeking employment in a school setting, applicants will be required to answer three questions regarding whether the applicant has ever:

  1. Been the subject of any child abuse or sexual misconduct investigation by the employer, law enforcement, or any state agency (unless the allegations were false or the incident was not substantiated);
  2. Been disciplined, discharged, non-renewed, asked to resign, etc. while allegations were pending/under investigation, or due to an adjudication/finding; or
  3. Had a license/certification suspended while allegations were pending/under investigation, or due to an adjudication/finding.

A prospective employer would then be required to contact the applicant’s former employers (limited to those with whom the applicant had an employment relationship in the previous 20 years) in order to ascertain whether the applicant’s answers to the questions above are accurate. If an applicant or previous employer provides an affirmative response to any of the questions, then the prospective employer would need to follow up with the previous employer and obtain additional information before making a hiring decision.

The bill also would prohibit confidential separation agreements between school districts and employees that would have the effect of suppressing any information related to investigations or findings of sexual misconduct or child abuse by an employee.

The NJSBA supports the legislation as it seeks to protect the health and well-being of New Jersey’s school-age children. The NJSBA did offer several amendments to the legislation, most of which were accepted by the sponsors, intended to help facilitate a smooth implementation. Such amendments include allowing an employer to hire an applicant on an emergent basis while conducting the review of his or her employment history; establishing a 20-year “lookback” limitation in reviewing an applicant’s employment history; and directing the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to play a more active role in providing assistance and guidance to employers and applicants.

The Senate unanimously approved an earlier version of S-414 in January. The bill was subsequently amended by the Assembly Education Committee before passing the full Assembly by a vote of 73-0. The Senate voted to concur with such amendments on Monday and sent the measure to Gov. Murphy’s desk. If signed into law, the bill would go into effect on the first day of the second month following enactment.

The Senate also advanced the following measures impacting New Jersey’s school districts:

Superintendent Salary CapS-692 prohibits the NJDOE from regulating the maximum salary amount a school district may pay its superintendent of schools. The superintendent salary caps originally went into effect in February 2011 and were later renewed, with some modifications, in the spring of 2017. They are now set to expire in 2024. According to data collected by NJSBA in February 2014, the cap has been a major factor in superintendent turnover and has resulted in a decrease in experience levels of superintendent candidates. When the restriction was proposed and later readopted, the NJSBA expressed opposition, terming it an unnecessary “cap within caps,” as several controls are already in place to ensure accountability and fiscal prudence in administrative spending. These controls include the 2 percent tax-levy cap; statutory limits on the annual growth of school district administrative expenditures; and oversight and review of school administrator contracts and compensation by the NJDOE. The NJSBA also opposes the superintendent salary cap due to the negative impact it has on the quality, stability and continuity of public education across the state.

The NJSBA strongly supports S-692 and the repeal of the salary cap. The bill now heads to the General Assembly where no companion bill has been introduced to date.

“Transgender Equality Task Force”S-705 establishes the Transgender Equality Task Force, which is charged with assessing the legal and societal barriers to equality for transgender individuals in the state, and providing recommendations to the Legislature and the governor on how to ensure equality and improve the lives of transgender individuals, with particular attention to the following areas: healthcare, long term care, education, higher education, housing, employment, and criminal justice. NJSBA supports the bill.

Mandatory Recess Period S-847 requires that a public school district must provide a daily recess period of at least 20 minutes for students in grades kindergarten through five. The recess period is to be held outdoors, if feasible. Under the bill, a student may not be denied recess for any reason, other than as a consequence of a violation of the district’s code of student conduct, including a harassment, intimidation, or bullying (HIB) investigation. A school district, whenever possible, must avoid denying a student recess more than twice per week. The bill’s provisions would not prohibit school staff from denying recess based on medical advice or a student’s 504 plan. Also, a school district would not be required to provide a recess period on a substantially shortened school day. The bill provides that recess will not be permitted to be used to meet the current statutory requirements regarding the provision of health, safety, and physical education courses in public schools. If signed into law, the bill will take effect in the 2019-2020 school year. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Senate Education Committee On Thursday, Feb. 22, the Senate Education Committee held a meeting focused primarily on improving student health and increasing participation in school breakfast and lunch programs. The committee also revisited a measure concerning chronic absenteeism that passed the Legislature last session, but failed to obtain the governor’s signature.

Below are descriptions of the bills that the committee approved.

“Breakfast After the Bell”S-1894 requires a “Breakfast After the Bell” program in all schools with 70 percent or more of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program or the federal School Breakfast Program.

Breakfast After the Bell programs have been shown to increase student participation in school breakfast programs.

Under current law, which would not change, a school with 5 percent or more of those eligible students must have a school lunch program, and a school with 20 percent or more of those eligible students must have a regular school breakfast program.

Each school district would be required to adopt a plan to establish a Breakfast After the Bell program for all grades at each school in the district required to establish such a program, within one year after the effective date of the bill. Any plan is required to be developed by the school district and adopted by the school board.

Within six months after the law is enacted, each district is required to notify the New Jersey Department of Agriculture and the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), of its Breakfast After the Bell plan.

Any school district currently providing a school Breakfast After the Bell program would not be required to adopt a new plan, but would have to provide notification to the state agriculture department about its program. The bill also permits a public school to establish a paid Breakfast After the Bell program for students not eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

An appropriation to the New Jersey Department of Agriculture by the state each fiscal year is required in order to provide the state share for the Breakfast After the Bell program established under the bill.

Numerous studies document that childhood hunger impedes learning and can cause lifelong health problems. In New Jersey, tens of thousands of children suffer from hunger each year, with nearly 540,000 students living in families eligible to receive free or low-cost school meals.

There are amendments to the bill that clarify the timeline and specify when schools would have to submit their plans and start to implement the breakfast program. NJSBA supports the bill with the amendments.

Non-Participation Report/Community Eligibility ProvisionS-1895 requires 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 New Jersey Department of Education.

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. NJSBA did not take a position on the bill.

Meal Denial ReportingS-1896 requires school districts to report quarterly to the state Department of Agriculture the number of students who are denied school breakfast or school lunch; the agriculture department then forwards the information to the NJDOE.

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 is to then 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.

NJSBA did not take a position on this bill.

Summer Meal ProgramsS-1897 expands summer meal programs to all school districts with 50 percent or more of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

This bill requires every school district in which 50 percent or more of the students enrolled in the school were eligible for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program or the federal School Breakfast Program to become a sponsor of the federal Summer Food Service Program.

Each school district would be required, no later than one year after the date of enactment of this bill into law, to submit a plan for sponsorship of the federal Summer Food Service Program. Based on the plan submitted to the state Department of Agriculture, each district would be required to become a sponsor no later than two years following the date of enactment of this bill into law. The bill permits the department to grant a waiver from the sponsorship requirement to a school district under certain conditions.

The “Summer Food Service Program” means the 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, which is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and administered by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

Locally, approved sponsors, including school districts, run the Summer Food Service Program. Each sponsor provides free meals to a group of children at a central site such as a school or a community center. The Summer Food Service Program is the single largest federal resource available for local sponsors who want to combine a feeding program with a summer activity program.

There are amendments to the bill that say the state Department of Agriculture may also grant a waiver to a school district if a different sponsor currently runs the “Federal Summer Food Service Program” within the same community. NJSBA supports the bill with the amendments. The legislation has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact.

The committee also approved the following measures:

Combatting Chronic Absenteeism S-1876 requires that, if 10 percent or more of the students enrolled in a public school are chronically absent, the school must develop a corrective action plan to improve absenteeism rates. The bill requires that in developing the corrective action plan, the school must solicit input from parents through multiple means, including through the administration of a survey, engaging with the school’s parent organization, and, if the school does not have a parent organization, holding a public meeting to provide parents with the opportunity to provide input. The bill requires the school to present its corrective action plan to the board of education. The school would annually review and revise the plan, and present the revisions to the board, until the percent of students who are chronically absent is less than 10 percent. The bill also requires the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to include on School Report Cards data on the number and percentage of students who were chronically absent and the number and percentage of students who received a disciplinary suspension. The bill directs the commissioner to review the chronic absenteeism rates of each school and school district annually, and report on the rates to the State Board of Education.

NJSBA is monitoring the legislation, which was “pocket vetoed” by Gov. Chris Christie at the end of the previous legislative session. S-1876 now goes to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Promoting ApprenticeshipsS-372 requires the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, in consultation with the New Jersey Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, to develop guidelines for use by high school counselors to coordinate services with representatives of the New Jersey State Building and Construction Trades Council for purposes of encouraging student participation in apprenticeships and raising awareness of apprenticeship opportunities. The commissioner will post the guidelines on the education department’s website and will update the information annually. NJSBA supports the legislation.

“Youth Art Month”SR-47 recognizes March of 2018 as “Youth Art Month” in order to promote art education and creative learning. Art education contributes to the development of creative problem-solving abilities and critical thinking skills while reinforcing what students learn in other subject areas. By developing imagination, originality, abstract reasoning, and critiquing skills, art education prepares students to be successful in all subject areas. NJSBA supports the bill.

Joint Bracketing Measure Resurfaces On Monday, the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee advanced S-868, which 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.

Similar measures have been approved by the Legislature in recent years, but none of them obtained the governor’s signature. Most recently former 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.