The Legislature is currently in the midst of what is typically one of the busiest times of the year at the State House. The education committees of both houses of the Legislature met on Monday, June 20. Several other committees have also convened over the last week to advance a host of bills that impact New Jersey’s school districts and students.
Assembly Education Committee Expresses Opposition to Superintendent Salary Cap As the sunset of the superintendent salary cap approaches, at least one house of the Legislature appears poised to send a message to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) that the policy should not continue. On Monday, the Assembly Education Committee advanced ACR-56, which urges the education commissioner to suspend the regulations on the maximum salary amount for a superintendent of schools for those superintendent contracts that have a contract term beginning on July 1, 2015, and not to readopt the regulations when they sunset on November 25, 2016. NJSBA strongly supports the resolution and will continue to advocate for the outright repeal of the superintendent salary cap. The Association considers the regulation to be an unnecessary “cap within a cap” that impedes the ability of local boards of education to carry out their responsibility to employ the best-qualified individuals as superintendents. The non-binding resolution may now be posted for an Assembly floor vote. If approved by the full Assembly, it will be forwarded to the education commissioner and to each member of the State Board of Education. The Senate approved legislation in 2015 that would repeal the cap outright, but that bill has not yet been posted for a hearing this year.
The Assembly Education Committee approved each of the following measures on June 20 as well:
A-3629/S-86 would establish a new category of “Class Three” special law enforcement officers (SLEOs) who would be specifically authorized to provide security in the state’s public and nonpublic schools, as well as county colleges. Such officers would be authorized to provide security at a school while they are on school premises during hours when the school is normally in session or when it is occupied by students or their teachers. The NJSBA strongly supports the concept of this legislation. In its October 2014 final report, the NJSBA’s School Security Task Force recommended that the state establish a new category of SLEOs to provide security in schools. And in July 2015, the final report of the “New Jersey School Security Task Force” that was established through legislation in 2013 included a similar recommendation. While generally supportive of the measure, the NJSBA expressed concerns with an amendment adopted by the committee that would remove the requirement that Class Three SLEOs complete a school resource officer (SRO) training course, which would ensure they are appropriately equipped to work with students and deal with school climate issues.
A-2873 provides that, beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, each public school enrolling students in grades nine through 12 shall offer a course in computer science. Beginning in 2022-2023, the State Board of Education shall require each student to complete a course in computer science as part of the high school graduation requirement. The course shall include, but need not be limited to, instruction in computational thinking, computer programming, the appropriate use of the internet and development of internet web pages, data security and the prevention of data breaches, ethical matters in computer science, and the global impact of advancements in computer science. Computer science is driving job growth and innovation, and more than half of projected jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields are in computing occupations. Also, computer science is a foundational science for the digital age, and a fundamental knowledge of computer science is needed to prepare students for the 21st century, regardless of their ultimate field of study or occupation. NJSBA supports the concept but expressed concerns on whether there are enough teachers who are proficient in this subject available to provide coverage on a statewide basis. Additionally, the Association asked for clarification about some terms used in the bill, specifically computer programming. Many districts are already making efforts to provide their students with basic computer literacy. Providing classes in complex coding (i.e., actual programming languages and website development) requires more sophisticated instruction, which may not be available to meet the proposed timeframe on a statewide basis. More importantly making this a graduation requirement also makes it a new state mandate, which will likely require additional state resources.
A-313 requires certain additional school district personnel to complete a training program on suicide prevention. Under current law, public school teaching staff members receive instruction in suicide prevention as part of their professional development requirements. This bill provides that a school district employee who is not subject to the current professional development requirement and an employee of a contracted service provider, who has regular and direct contact with students as determined by the board of education, will be required to complete a one-time training program in suicide prevention, awareness, and response developed or identified by the NJDOE. In addition, each school district and contracted service provider is to annually provide its employees with an educational fact sheet and guidelines on the school district’s reporting and suicide prevention, awareness, and response protocols. NJSBA supports the measure.
A-1030 requires each board of education to adopt a policy establishing temperature control standards and guidelines for school district facilities. The NJDOE and the state health department will jointly develop guidance to assist school districts in establishing such a policy. NJSBA supports the legislation.
A-2292 requires that the NJDOE conduct a review of the Core Curriculum Content Standards in health and physical education to ensure that guidance for substance abuse instruction incorporates the most recent evidence-based standards and practices. NJSBA supports the bill.
A-3396 directs the State Board of Education to require that a school district provide in each of the grades kindergarten through eight, financial literacy instruction to pupils enrolled in those grades. NJSBA supports the bill.
A-3790 limits expulsions and suspensions for students in preschool through grade two in a school district or charter school. Current law outlines the types of conduct that may constitute good cause for the suspension or expulsion of a student from school; this bill would limit expulsions and suspensions for students enrolled in preschool through second grade in a school district or charter school. Under the bill, students in preschool through second grade may not be expelled from school, except as provided pursuant to the “Zero Tolerance for Guns Act.” The bill also prohibits out-of-school suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade, except when the suspension is based on conduct that is of a violent or sexual nature that endangers others. In addition, the bill prohibits all suspensions for preschool students. NJSBA supports the bill.
A-3879 requires a school district that includes any of the grades nine through 12 to adopt a policy to provide that a student enrolled in those grades who participates in any school-sponsored, interscholastic extracurricular activity that includes competitions in which the student competes against students enrolled in schools outside of the district, may be eligible to earn a varsity letter awarded by the district. The NJSBA did not take a public stance on the bill and will continue to monitor its progress.
Senate Education Committee Moves on Latest School Funding Plan The upper house’s education committee deliberated and advanced legislation to set up a process for reviewing and recommending how the state should fund its public schools. S-2372, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senate Education Chair Teresa Ruiz, would establish the “State School Aid Funding Fairness Commission.” The commission would be tasked with studying current law and providing recommended revisions concerning:
- Adjustment aid and State aid growth limit provisions of the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA);
- The tax levy growth limitations;
- Administrative spending limits; and
- The measurements used to determine school districts’ local fair share.
The commission would be comprised of four members with knowledge in school finance and state budgeting. The members would be appointed as follows: two members by the governor; one by the Senate president and one by the Assembly speaker. Their recommendations, due one year after formation after at least two public hearings, would go directly to the Senate and Assembly floors for a straight up or down vote with no amendments allowed.
NJSBA supported the measure, noting its support of fair, equitable state funding and the open public process while reserving judgement on the final product of the commission for a later time. The Association’s official statement on the measure can be found here: staging.njsba.org/news-publications/press-releases/njsba-comments-senate-presidents-proposed-school-funding-commission/.
Other bills approved by the committee include:
S-1144 requires that a public school district must provide a daily recess period of at least 20 minutes for students in grades kindergarten through 5. If feasible, the recess period is to be held outdoors. Identical legislation was “pocket vetoed” by the governor at the end of the 2014-2015 legislative session. NJSBA supports the bill.
A-1657/S-2168 would establish a “breakfast after the bell” incentive fund. This bill requires the state Department of Agriculture, in consultation with the NJDOE, to develop and administer an incentive fund that will provide a 10-cent per breakfast supplement to the existing federal reimbursement to school districts that participate in the federal school breakfast program. The bill provides that a public school district with schools that participate in the federal school breakfast program that serve “breakfast after the bell” with 20 to 100 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced price breakfast would be eligible for this additional reimbursement. NJSBA is monitoring this legislation.
A-3347/S-2242 establishes the New Jersey School Safety Specialist Academy within the NJDOE. The purpose of the academy will be to serve as a repository for best practices, training standards, and compliance oversight in matters regarding school safety and security. Under the bill, as amended, the academy will develop and implement a School Safety Specialist Certification Program. Each school superintendent will be required to designate a school administrator as a school safety specialist who must complete the certification program. The school safety specialist will be responsible for the supervision and oversight of all school safety and security personnel, policies, and procedures in the school district; ensure that these policies and procedures are in compliance with state law and regulations; and provide the necessary training and resources to school district staff in matters relating to school safety and security. The school safety specialist will also serve as the school district liaison with local law enforcement and other agencies and organizations in matters of school safety and security. The NJSBA supports the legislation. The NJSBA has successfully obtained amendments clarifying that the certification program and any related training and professional development will be provided free of charge to designated school safety specialists. The bill would codify the first recommendation of the New Jersey School Security Task Force, which released its final report in July 2015.
A-2158/S-2241, another school security initiative, authorizes the use of an emergency reserve fund or proceeds from bonds issued by the New Jersey Economic Development Agency to finance school security improvements. NJSBA supports this proposal.
S-436 requires the NJDOE to encourage each board of education to offer instruction in media literacy, including the means to demystify violent images, and to study the feasibility of incorporating the instruction into the curriculum framework that is developed to implement the Common Core State Standards in English language arts. NJSBA supports the bill.
S-1451 requires the NJDOE to maintain an electronic database of legal decisions concerning special education in New Jersey. The department must make the database available on its website so that it can be easily accessed by parents, school districts, child study team members, or other interested members of the public who wish to obtain information on legal decisions regarding New Jersey special education matters. NJSBA supports the legislation.
S-1472 establishes a pilot program in the NJDOE in which the state commissioner of education will recruit eligible participants and match them to teaching opportunities for which they may apply in chronically failing schools, as defined in the bill, under the state’s alternate route teacher preparation program. NJSBA supports the measure.
S-2182 requires each public and nonpublic school to provide students with more information about NJ STARS, the student tuition assistance scholarship program, and to improve student notification of potential eligibility for the program.
Revised School Board Election Bill Advances On June 20, the Assembly Judiciary Committee advanced A-3728/S-2099, which concerns the statutory authorization for moving the date of the annual school election from November back to April. The bill has been significantly amended since it was last heard by the Senate State Government Committee in May. The Assembly Judiciary Committee amended the bill to impose a two-year moratorium, beginning June 1, 2016 and ending May 31, 2018, on moving or attempting to move the date of a school district’s annual election from the date of the general election in November back to the third Tuesday in April. The amendments also create a School District Annual Election Study Commission. The purpose of the commission is to study: (1) the voter turnout data and the fiscal impact and cost savings of moving the date of the annual school election for school districts to the date of the general election in November; (2) the voter turnout estimates and implications and the fiscal impact and cost savings of moving the date of the annual school election for school districts from November to the third Tuesday in April; and (3) the implications of moving the annual election as described in (1) and (2) on proposed school budgets. The commission will consist of 10 members. Two members are to be appointed by the governor, including the secretary of state, serving ex officio, or the secretary’s designee; two members are to be appointed by the president of the Senate, including one member upon the recommendation of the New Jersey School Boards Association; two members are to be appointed by the speaker of the General Assembly, including one member upon the recommendation of the New Jersey League of Municipalities; two members are to be appointed by the minority leader of the Senate, including one member upon the recommendation of the New Jersey Association of Election Officials; and two members are to be appointed by the minority leader of the General Assembly, including one member upon the recommendation of the New Jersey Association of Counties.
The NJSBA expressed concerns about the bill. First, the proposed two-year moratorium would eliminate the board’s ability to choose to move back to April until at least 2017 threatening the local control embedded in current law. Second, the June 1, 2016 beginning for the moratorium means that the bill would invalidate any board action to move the election to April between now and the time the bill might be signed by the governor. Such retroactive legislation that permits the Legislature to reach back beyond the date the legislation is signed into law raises a question of fundamental fairness for boards of education. The NJSBA believes that the current law protects local decision-making by local boards of education and the communities that they serve.
Cost-Savings Measures Move Forward On June 16, the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee released two measures that have the potential to generate savings for New Jersey local governing bodies, including boards of education. S-728 applies local public contract bid threshold amounts to local pay to play and prevailing wage laws. Current law provides that boards of education may award contracts without public advertising for bids if the contract amount is below $17,500. However, a board of education that has appointed a qualified purchasing agent (QPA), can set the bid threshold at up to $25,000. A board of education may adopt higher threshold amounts set by the governor every five years to account for inflation. The governor’s adjusted threshold amount currently allows boards of education to set the bid threshold at up to $29,000, and boards of education with a QPA at up to $40,000. The bill revises the prevailing wage threshold amount (currently $2,000) for boards of education to be consistent with the applicable local public contract threshold amounts. S-728 has the potential to generate significant savings for school districts and taxpayers, and therefore NJSBA supports the measure. Long-standing NJSBA policy supports increasing the prevailing wage threshold, as many boards of education have complained of the burdens that the Prevailing Wage Act creates in securing contractors for capital improvements of relatively small amounts, and the increased costs that result. The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.
The committee also advanced S-2033, which authorizes boards of education, municipalities, and counties to pay certain claims through the use of standard electronic funds transfer (EFT) technologies. Under the bill, the governing body of a local unit may adopt policies for the payment of claims through the use of one or more standard electronic funds transfer technologies in lieu of payment through the use of signed checks or warrants. The NJSBA has long believed that boards of education should be able to take advantage of electronic procurement technology and practices that result in streamlined purchasing procedures and more efficient use of taxpayer funds. The bill’s Assembly counterpart, A-3851, was released from the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday. The NJSBA supports both measures.
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee also met on June 16 and brought a bill that concerns special education one step closer to the governor’s desk. A-2566/S-496 directs the commissioner of education to develop and establish an initiative to support and encourage the use of a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework by school districts to promote the achievement of all students. The bill requires the commissioner to ensure that an RTI framework developed and implemented by a school district includes, at a minimum, certain elements that are commonly recognized as core components of any RTI model. These elements include: (1) high quality research-based instruction in the general education setting; (2) universal screening procedures to identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes or behavioral challenges; (3) multiple levels of evidence-based interventions that are progressively more intense, based on the student’s responsiveness; and (4) continuous monitoring of student progress. Finally, the bill requires the commissioner to make technical assistance and training available to assist school districts in implementing an RTI framework. NJSBA supports the legislation, which is primed for a Senate floor vote.