Over the last week, several legislative committees met and released a bevy of measures impacting New Jersey’s public school districts.  This article provides a rundown of the past week’s legislative activity. Each of the bills summarized below were favorably released from committee, and unless otherwise noted, may be scheduled for a floor vote.

Assembly Education Committee

Sending District Voting Rights A-3370 /S-3191 broadens the voting rights of representatives of sending school districts who are eligible for membership on a receiving district board of education. The current statute permits the representatives to vote on tuition which the receiving district will charge the sending district, along with certain bill lists or contracts; new capital construction to be used by sending district pupils; the appointment, transfer or removal of certain teaching staff members and professional administrative staff; and the addition or deletion of curricular and extracurricular programs involving pupils of the sending district. This bill provides that the representative would also vote on any matter directly involving sending district pupils or programs and services utilized by them; approval of the annual receiving district budget; any collectively-negotiated agreement involving employees who provide services used by sending district pupils; any individual employee contracts not covered by a collectively-negotiated agreement, if those employees provide or oversee programs or services utilized by sending district pupils; and any matter concerning governance of the receiving board, including, but not limited to, the selection of board president and vice-president, approval of board bylaws, and the employment of professionals or consultants such as attorneys, architects, engineers, or others who provide services to the receiving district board of education.

The NJSBA-initiated bill is based on policy adopted at the May 2014 Delegate Assembly which states: “The statutory language of N.J.S.A. 18A:38-8.1 should be revised to expand the voting rights of sending district representatives on matters before the receiving district board of education to include the ability to vote on all matters that impact the students of the sending district in the receiving district; all district-wide issues, all board governance issues and all matters related to the grade levels to which the sending district sends its students.”

The bills may now be scheduled for an Assembly floor vote.  S-3191 has already received unanimous Senate approval.

Reading Pilot Program A-3521 directs the New Jersey Commissioner of Education to establish a three-year public school district pilot program to provide supplemental reading instruction to students enrolled in grades K-3 in select districts. The goal of the pilot program is to improve students’ literacy skills through the provision of an after-school program that uses a combination of targeted software and traditional learning methods.

A school district which wants to participate in the pilot program may submit an application to the commissioner in accordance with the bill’s provisions. The commissioner will select up to 12 school districts for participation in the pilot program. The commissioner must select districts in which more than 80 percent of third-grade students did not meet expectations on the most recent administration of the state assessment in English Language Arts/Literacy.

Each pilot district will be eligible to receive state support, as needed and determined by the commissioner, to implement the pilot program. State support may be provided for costs associated with: the purchase of approved software programs; the employment of after-school program staff; the training of program staff in the use of the software; and any technology upgrades that may be necessary for the implementation of the program. NJSBA supports the bill, which has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee to consider its fiscal impact.

Child Abuse Hotline A-3655 requires a board of education to display information about the New Jersey Department of Children and Families’ State Central Registry, a toll-free hotline for reporting child abuse, in each school of the district.  NJSBA supports the bill.

School Bus Aides A-4332/S-2757 requires that a board of education, or school bus contractor that provides transportation services under contract with a board of education, maintain a minimum ratio of one school bus aide for every 15 students with special needs on the school bus. This ratio must be maintained at all times that a school bus is transporting students with special needs or a combination of students with special needs and general education students. The NJSBA raised concerns about the additional costs to local districts of providing the additional aides and urged the Legislature to find the funds to cover the additional expenses. The measure has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for consideration of the financial impact it will have on school districts.  S-2757 passed the full Senate by a vote of 27-9 last month.

Protecting High School TranscriptsA-4860 prohibits a person from buying, selling, making or altering, giving, issuing, obtaining or attempting to obtain a transcript of high school course work with the intent to deceive.  A person who violates this provision is subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 for each offense. NJSBA supports the measure. The bill now heads to the full Assembly for approval.

Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance Committee

Health Care Cost Transparency A-4798/S-2459 requires health insurance consultants and carriers to provide certain health insurance information to local governing bodies, including local boards of education, and requires this information to be reviewed in advance of the preparation of their annual budgets.

Under the bill, a health insurance consultant that contracts with a municipality, county, or school board would be required to annually disclose to the unit or board the amount of compensation received in the prior year from a carrier for any insurance consultant services provided in connection with a contract awarded to the carrier by the local governing body. The bill would also require a carrier that contracts with a municipality, county, or school board to provide health care data on a biannual basis.

Health insurance is a major expense for municipalities, counties, and school boards. By requiring greater transparency in health insurance usage and costs, as well as requiring review of this information, this bill aims to help local governing bodies ensure that taxpayer funds are being spent on their employees’ health insurance in a cost-effective manner.

As introduced, A-4798/S-2459 only applied to counties and municipalities. Before the bill was released from committee, the NJSBA successfully obtained an amendment to the bill to make it applicable to school districts. The Association supports the legislation, which will need floor votes in both houses before it heads to the governor’s desk.

Senate Transportation Committee

Pedestrian Safety Driver’s Ed A-4165/S-2894 requires driver education courses, new driver brochures, and the driver’s license written exam to include cyclist and pedestrian safety information.

This bill requires the curriculum for approved classroom driver education courses and the informational brochure distributed by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission to the parents and guardians of beginning drivers to include information concerning operating a motor vehicle in a manner that safely shares the roadway with pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, riders of motorized-scooters, and other non-motorized vehicles. The bill further provides that the written driving examination is to include questions on cyclist and pedestrian safety. NJSBA supports the legislation, which now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee

School Safety Specialists A-3347/S-2242 establishes the “New Jersey School Safety Specialist Academy” within the New Jersey Department of Education (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, 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, which would codify one of the recommendations of the New Jersey School Security Task Force, which released its final report in July 2015. Earlier in the legislative process, the NJSBA successfully obtained amendments to the bill clarifying that the certification program and any related training and professional development will be provided free of charge to designated school safety specialists. Once passed by the full Senate, the bill will return to the Assembly, which passed a previous version of A-3347, to concur with amendments made by the Senate.

Fighting Chronic AbsenteeismS-447 requires the state education commissioner to include the number and percentage of students who were chronically absent and the number and percentage of students who received a disciplinary suspension on School Report Cards data. This bill also requires that, in the event that 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. In developing the corrective action plan, the school must solicit input from parents and then present the plan to the board of education. The school would annually review and revise the plan until the percent of students who are chronically absent is less than 10 percent.

When S-447 was heard by the Senate Education Committee in February, the NJSBA expressed concerns over the definition of chronic absenteeism in the original version of the bill. As a result, the committee amended the bill providing that the NJDOE will determine the definition of chronic absenteeism through regulation instead. NJSBA will continue to monitor the bill’s progress.

Assembly Appropriations Committee

School Bus Cameras A-3798/S-211 explicitly permits the use of video cameras to crack down on motorists illegally passing school buses. More specifically, the bill authorizes the use of a school bus monitoring system to assist in the enforcement of existing law that prohibits motor vehicles from passing a school bus while it is stopped to pick up or discharge students. Alleged school bus passing violations captured by such a monitoring system would be compiled into an evidence file and forwarded to the chief law enforcement officer of the municipality. If law enforcement determines that a violation has occurred, a summons would be issued. The money from any fines would be used for general municipal and school district purposes, including efforts to improve the monitoring and enforcement of the unlawful passing of a school buses and the provision of public education safety programs. The bill would also increase the fines for any violations of the no-passing law, regardless of whether they are captured by a video camera or through police observations.

While the legislation would establish a formal legal and procedural framework for school bus monitoring systems, local boards of education do not necessarily need to wait for explicit statutory authorization before placing cameras on the exterior of school buses. While not a widespread practice at this point, several school districts have already chosen to install video cameras on the exterior of their school buses in an attempt to crack down on motorists that violate the law. NJSBA supports the measure, which will need final votes in both the Assembly and Senate before going to the governor.

Promoting “Smarter Lunchrooms” A-3444, also known as “The Smarter Lunchroom Act,” promotes healthy food choices in school cafeterias by encouraging school districts, public schools, and nonpublic schools to adopt the strategies of The Smarter Lunchroom Movement. The Smarter Lunchroom Movement was founded by researchers at the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs and offers simple, low- to no-cost evidence-based tools that improve child eating behaviors in school cafeterias. The bill requires the state education commissioner to make every effort to assist, guide, and support schools in planning, establishing, and implementing the strategies of The Smarter Lunchroom Movement. NJSBA supports the bill.

Assembly Women and Children Committee

Summer Meal ProgramsA-4906 requires each school district and nonpublic school in New Jersey to notify each student and the student’s parent or guardian of the availability and criteria of eligibility for the summer meals program and the locations in the local school district where the summer meals are available. Notification would be made by distributing flyers provided by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture. The bill directs the department to develop and distribute to each school district and nonpublic school in the state.  Additionally, school districts and schools are permitted to provide electronic notice of the information through the usual means by which the school district or school communicates with parents and students electronically.  NJSBA supports the bill, which will now go before the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Online Applications for School Lunch and BreakfastA-4908 would require the NJDOE to develop and make available to each school district and nonprofit nonpublic school participating in the National School Lunch Program or in a school breakfast program, an internet-based online school meal application for eligible students to participate in these programs. Schools participating in these programs would be encouraged to make the online school meal application available. A participating school district or nonprofit nonpublic school that implements the online school meal application would also be required to continue to make paper applications available. NJSBA supports the bill.

“Every Kid Healthy Week”AJR-154, a joint resolution, designates the fourth week in April of each year as “Every Kid Healthy Week” in New Jersey in order to promote healthy lifestyles choices for New Jersey’s children and draw attention to the risks of childhood obesity.

“Every Kid Healthy Week” was established as a part of a national movement to help schools and parents promote healthy lifestyle choices for their children. During this week, schools are encouraged to partner with parents and health clubs to help encourage kids to eat healthy and stay active. NJSBA supports the resolution.

Expansion of Summer Meal Program AR-254, a non-binding Assembly resolution, urges the president and Congress to expand access to the after-school summer meal programs and streamline the application process.  Streamlining would allow public and private organizations to complete one application so that they can provide children meals after school, during the summer, on weekends and during school holidays. NJSBA supports the resolution.

Expanding Eligibility for Federal Nutrition Programs  AR-255, also a non-binding resolution, urges the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase the funding for, and availability of, school nutrition programs to children throughout the state by lowering the eligibility threshold for federal nutrition programs from 50 percent to 40 percent of children in an area being eligible to receive free or reduced price school meals. Lowering the percentage to 40 percent would allow more children eligible to receive the nutritional assistance these programs provide. NJSBA supports the resolution.

Assembly State and Local Government Committee

Nepotism Policies A-729 directs boards of education of school districts and county vocational school districts to adopt and implement a nepotism policy. The adoption of such a policy will be a condition for the receipt of state aid. The bill also directs the board of trustees of a charter school to adopt and implement a nepotism policy. The policy adopted by a board of trustees will be applicable to members of the board and to charter school administrators. Under regulations adopted by the state education commissioner, the board of education of a school district or county vocational school district was required to adopt a nepotism policy by October 1, 2008. This proposal codifies and slightly expands this 2008 requirement. NJSBA is monitoring the legislation.

Sharing PILOT Payments A-4607 would require municipalities to pay boards of education 5 percent of annual collections under payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreements for residential developments. The NJSBA expressed concerns with both the relatively low level of funds the bill would dedicate to boards of education, as well as the limitation to only residential PILOTs. The bill has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.