legupdateOn Thursday, June 11, the Senate Education Committee met to consider a package of bills that focused primarily on school bus safety and pupil transportation. A description of the bills, all of which the committee voted to release, follows:

S-2011, designated “Abigail’s Law,” requires that all newly-manufactured school buses be equipped with sensors to alert a bus driver when a child walks in front or back of the bus. If approved, the bill would go into effect 180 days after enactment. It would only apply prospectively, so buses already in operation would not need to be retrofitted with new sensors. NJSBA has a long-standing policy endorsing the installation of bumper sensors on school buses, and supports S-2011. While acknowledging that the prospective nature of the bill should mitigate the adverse financial impact on school districts, the NJSBA did encourage the Legislature to provide a funding source to offset the cost of installing the sensors. In a fiscal estimate prepared by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services for a previous version of the legislation, the OLS estimated that the sensors would cost approximately $1,000 for the equipment and installation. The legislation now goes to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

S-632 requires that all newly-manufactured school buses be equipped with three-point lap and shoulder seat belts. Under current law, school buses are required to be equipped with only lap belts. As is the case with S-2011, the bill would apply prospectively. In testimony before the committee, the NJSBA expressed concerns with the legislation and argued that the cost of implementation may be significant and not necessarily lead to enhanced safety for students. Preliminary research indicates that requiring lap and shoulder belts could substantially increase the cost of school bus contracts, but there is little evidence demonstrating that the equipment would lead to a reduction in fatalities. The NJSBA pointed out that New Jersey is a national leader in school bus safety and is currently one of only a handful of states that require any kind of seat belt on school buses. Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which establishes school bus safety standards and regulations, has repeatedly denied requests to make the installation of seat belts on large school buses a federal mandate (smaller mini-buses are the only ones who must be equipped with seat belts). Given that large school buses are already very safe, NHTSA believes states should be given the choice of deciding whether belts should be installed on school buses, or if states’ limited resources should be directed to other safety measures. The NJSBA urged the Legislature to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of S-632, and consider both the potential fiscal and safety impact the legislation would have on students and local school districts. While the bill was released from committee, several legislators said that they share the NJSBA’s concerns and indicated that more information is needed before the bill should advance any further. Along with S-2011, the bill has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

S-503 permits municipalities and school districts to contract for video monitoring systems to assist in enforcing the law against unlawfully passing a school bus. Under the bill, districts and municipalities are authorized to contract with a private company to install, operate, and maintain school bus monitoring systems on their school buses to assist in the enforcement of N.J.S.A.39:4-128.1, the law which prohibits motor vehicles from passing a school bus while it is stopped to pick up or discharge students. The bill would also upgrade the penalties for the unlawful passing of a school bus. The upgraded penalties provide that violators will be subject to a fine of not less than $300 or more than $500, and be assessed five penalty points. Currently, violators face of fine of $100, up to 15 days of community service, and five penalty points. All fines and penalties that are imposed based on recorded images provided by a monitoring system are to be collected by the court and paid to the financial officer of the municipality wherein the violation occurred. The municipality must use the fines and penalties for general municipal and school district purposes, including efforts to improve the monitoring and enforcement of the unlawful passing of a school bus through the use of school bus monitoring systems and the provision of public education safety programs. The NJSBA supports S-503 as it will enhance enforcement against drivers engaging in a highly dangerous, and potentially deadly, behavior. Bus drivers may not always be able to accurately identify the vehicle in question. This system will provide law enforcement with an important tool for improving safety, and will be cost-neutral to towns and districts. The bill may now be scheduled for a Senate floor vote.

S-2746 allows a board of education to award pupil transportation contracts that exceed the bid threshold through request for proposals (RFP). Under current law, if the amount of a contract for pupil transportation services will exceed the public bidding threshold, the board of education is required to advertise and publicly bid the contract. This bill provides the board of education with the option of entering into such a contract through an RFP process. The bill stipulates that the criteria must include, at a minimum, the previous experience of the contractor in transporting pupils; the name of each transportation company of which the contractor has been an owner or manager; a description of any safety programs implemented by the contractor; a record of accidents of the school buses under the control of the contractor; the driving history of the employees of the contractor; the inspection records and model year of the school buses under the control of the contractor; the maintenance schedule of the school buses under the control of the contractor; a financial analysis of the contractor; and compliance with insurance requirements. Official NJSBA policy holds to the belief that local boards of education should be granted the authority to disqualify and reject the low bid of any bus company vendor based on previous unsatisfactory performance that did, in fact, cause harm or had the potential to jeopardize the health, safety and well-being of school children, teachers, chaperones, or any other district employee or representative being transported by a school bus vendor. Therefore, the NJSBA supports the legislation. The bill is now primed for a vote before the full Senate.

The committee released two other pupil transportation-related bills on which the NJSBA did not take a public position, but will continue to monitor:

A-1029/S-274 requires that the commissioner of education develop a training program for school bus drivers and school bus aides on interacting with students with special needs. The training program would include appropriate behavior management, effective communication, the use and operation of adaptive equipment, and an understanding of behavior that may be related to specific disabilities. Once the training program is made available, boards of education and school bus contractors that provide student transportation services under contract with boards of education would be required to administer the training program to all school bus drivers and school bus aides that they employ. The General Assembly unanimously approved the legislation in December 2014. If approved by the Senate, the bill goes to the governor for his consideration.

A-1466 allows for a waiver of school bus requirements for mobility-assistance vehicle technicians who transport students with medical needs to and from school. The bill provides that a board of education, the governing body of a nonpublic school, or a state agency may authorize a person who is certified as a mobility-assistance vehicle technician to transport a student with medical needs to and from school or related school activities in a mobility-assistance vehicle without being required to be licensed or regulated as a school bus driver. Under the bill’s provisions, the mobility-assistance vehicle would be exempt from all registration, equipment, inspection, and maintenance requirements that are applicable to a school bus. The bill requires that each year prior to transporting students under the bill’s provisions, a mobility-assistance vehicle technician would be required to submit to the executive county superintendent of schools a criminal history background check and evidence of a check for alcohol and drug-related motor vehicle violations. The bill defines a “student with medical needs” as a school-aged child who suffers from a life-threatening medical condition, and as a result of such condition, requires more individualized and continuous care. If approved by the full Senate, A-1466 will go to the governor’s desk.

The committee also advanced S-1973, the only bill that did not concern student transportation. This bill requires that beginning on Sept. 1, 2015, municipal or county recreation departments and nonprofit youth serving organizations (such as Little Leagues, Babe Ruth Leagues, Pop Warner Leagues, Police Athletic Leagues, and youth soccer leagues), which organize, sponsor, or are otherwise affiliated with youth athletic events that are played on municipal, county, school, or other publicly-owned fields, must ensure that there is available on site an AED at each youth athletic event and practice held on the department’s or organization’s home field. The department or organization must designate one or more umpires, coaches, or licensed athletic trainers who will be present at the athletic event or practice to be responsible for ensuring that the AED is available on site. The designated umpire, coach, or athletic trainer must be trained in CPR and the use of an AED in accordance with the law. The NJSBA supports the measure, which has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Its lower house counterpart, A-3500, received the approval of the full General Assembly by a vote of 41-19-14 on the same day.

General Assembly Approves Several Education-Related Bills On the afternoon of Thursday, June 11, the full General Assembly held a voting session and advanced several pieces of legislation that the NJSBA is actively tracking:

S-2058/A-3738, sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak (Legislative District 20) authorizes the establishment of three pilot recovery alternative high schools that provide high school education and substance dependency plan of recovery to test the effectiveness of this model. The intent of this bill is to help prevent students with substance abuse problems from failing to graduate from high school.

The expansion to three schools authorized by the bill will build upon the first program started this year in Union County. Prevention Links, a non-profit, opened the Raymond Lesniak ESH Recovery High School in October at Kean University as part of the Union County Vocational school district.

The bill would permit the state education commissioner to authorize three alternative recovery high schools that would be open to students who are both “clinically and academically appropriate” for referral by the student’s home district. Participation would be voluntary, according to the bill. A report on the effectiveness of the programs, including graduation rate, scholastic performance and performance on state assessment tests, would be submitted annually. The bill allows students from a sending district to attend any of the three recovery alternative high schools which are authorized to be established pursuant to the bill. The bill, approved with a unanimous vote of 32 – 0 by the Senate on May 18, was approved by the Assembly by a vote of 65-6.

A-3230 expands military leave benefits for certain public officers and employees, subject to proof of service. The NJSBA is monitoring the bill.

A-3500 requires local recreation departments, youth-serving organizations, and camps to have defibrillators for youth athletic events. The NJSBA supports the legislation.

S-2484/A-3845 requires the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to conduct a study on the options and benefits of instituting a later school start time in middle school and high school. The NJSBA supports the measure, which has now passed both houses and awaits action by the governor.

S-300/A-4119 establishes the “New Jersey Out-of-School Time Advisory Commission” to review before-school, after-school, and summer programs. If approved, the commission would include a representative of the NJSBA, which supports the measure.

A-4148 provides an excused absence on Veterans Day for a pupil who participates in certain activities for veterans or active duty members of the United States Armed Forces or New Jersey National Guard. The NJSBA supports the bill.

S-1760/A-4212 recognizes American Sign Language as a world language for meeting high school graduation requirements. The NJSBA supports the bill, which now sits on the governor’s desk.

A-4354 requires employees of a private entity with access to student information under contract with NJDOE, school districts, or charter schools to undergo a criminal background check. NJSBA supports this bill conceptually, but expressed concern during committee deliberations that the proposal not be construed to limit scoring of the recent PARCC tests.

A-2687 provides for the replacement of incandescent light bulbs in public school buildings with energy-efficient light bulbs.

A-3223 requires the Division of Local Government Services to include certain property tax information on the division’s web page. The bill is now on the governor’s desk.