Various legislative initiatives impacting school districts have received consideration by the Legislature over the past two weeks.

School Security Remains Legislative Priority At its most recent voting session, the state Senate advanced several measures that promote increased security at New Jersey’s schools.

A-3349/S-2438 would implement various recommendations of the New Jersey School Security Task Force related to school security drills. First, it provides that an actual fire or school security emergency will be considered a “drill” for the purposes of meeting the requirements of the School Security Drill Law. Second, it requires a law enforcement officer to be present for at least one drill each school year so he or she can make recommendations for improvements or changes. Third, it expands the definition of “school security drill” to include practice procedures for responding to a bomb threat. It also provides that all school district employees will be provided with annual training on school safety and security. Current law stipulates that such training is only provided once to teaching staff members. In addition, the bill requires annual training to be conducted collaboratively with emergency responders in order to identify weaknesses in school security policies and procedures while increasing the effectiveness of emergency responders. NJSBA supports the measure, which has now passed both houses of the Legislature and is on the governor’s desk.

A-3348/S-2439 requires certain school security measures to be incorporated in the architectural design of new school construction and certain school security measures for existing buildings. This bill also implements recommendations of the New Jersey School Security Task Force. NJSBA supports the legislation which now heads to the governor for his consideration.

Class III Officer Bill Nears Gov’s Desk (Again) The Senate also approved a bill that will create a new class of school security officer. The bill had been sent to the governor earlier this year, but was subsequently returned to the Legislature with recommended changes. S-86 seeks to establish “Class Three” special law enforcement officers (SLEOs) to provide security in public and nonpublic schools and county colleges.

The NJSBA has actively endorsed the concept of this legislation. In its October 2014 final report, 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, which was established through legislation in 2013, included a similar recommendation.

At the Oct. 20 voting session, the Senate approved S-86 with the governor’s conditional veto recommendation issued in September.   Through that conditional veto, the governor reinserted a requirement that was removed during committee deliberations which will require class three SLEOs to complete school resource officer (SRO) training. The NJSBA supports the bill with the governor’s recommended changes. The measure now returns to the General Assembly, which must also approve the bill before sending it back to the governor. For more detailed information on the qualifications and requirements for becoming a class three SLEO, click here.

The Senate advanced several other bills of interest to NJSBA and its members.

A-1256/S-1381 would require State Board of Education regulations regarding school nurse certification to include certain minimum eligibility requirements. This bill essentially codifies into law the amendments to the school nurse credit requirements adopted by the New Jersey State Board of Education in June 2013. Those amendments reduced credit requirements for both instructional (21 credits) and non-instructional school nurse endorsements (15 credits). The intent of those changes was to simplify certification requirements, address the mismatch between the supply and demand of nurses, maintain health and safety, and increase hiring flexibility for school districts.

However, the bill would also reinstitute the requirement that a candidate for a school nurse endorsement complete a practicum experience, which was eliminated by the State Board in 2013. In addition, the bill specifies that the fundamentals of substance abuse and dependency will be one of the subject areas required to be studied in order to receive a school nurse endorsement or a school nurse/non-instructional endorsement. The bill, as introduced, gave the State Board of Education the authority to determine all the subject areas that would be required to be studied.

As introduced, this bill would have codified into law the “pre-2013” regulations that required a candidate for a school nurse endorsement to complete a minimum of 30 semester-hour credits. With regard to a school nurse/non-instructional endorsement, the introduced version sought to codify the previous requirement that they complete a minimum of 21 semester-hour credits. A similar measure was “pocket vetoed” by the governor at the end of the 2014-2015 legislative session.

During committee deliberations, the NJSBA expressed concerns with the bill as introduced. In written testimony, the NJSBA requested that the Legislature provide more time for the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) and local boards of education to evaluate the impact of the 2013 regulatory changes. A sufficient amount of time should elapse to determine if those changes have achieved their intent – to increase the pool of qualified school nurse applicants without diminishing student health and safety.

After being released by the Senate Education Committee, the bill was amended on the floor of the Senate. Those amendments reduce the minimum number of semester hour credits required in order to receive a school nurse endorsement to 21 semester hour credits and to receive a school nurse/non-instructional endorsement to 15 semester hour credits, which comports with current State Board of Education regulations.

The bill now returns to the Assembly, which passed the previous version of the bill, to concur with the Senate’s amendments.

A-1878/S-2404 increases the amount of permitted annual compensation paid to a Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF) retiree re-employed as an athletic coach by a former school district within 180 days of retirement. Legislation signed into law in the 2014-2015 session created an exception to current regulations to allow a retired member of the TPAF to become employed again with the former employer in a position as a coach of an athletics activity if, among other conditions, the compensation for the employment is less than $10,000 per year. This bill increases the amount of annual compensation to less than $15,000 for such retirees. NJSBA believes retirees under a New Jersey pension program should be permitted to be employed by a New Jersey public employer up to the maximum earnings allowed under Social Security (currently $15,720), without penalty. The Association, therefore, supports this proposal. The bill now awaits the governor’s approval.

S-2323 requires that teachers appointed to teach health, health and physical education, or physical education in grades kindergarten through six, possess the appropriate endorsement to their instructional certificate. The NJSBA has not taken a public stance on the measure. However, the Association supports the bill’s “grandfather” provision, which will permit any teacher who has obtained an elementary school endorsement prior to the bill’s effective date to continue teaching health and/or physical education without obtaining the appropriate endorsements in those subject areas. This provision acknowledges the need to grant school districts adequate time and flexibility to comply with the new endorsement requirement. The measure now goes to the Assembly Education Committee.

S-1474 provides that the State Board of Education must require that the preparation program for an instructional certificate include a minimum of six semester credit hours of classroom instruction or clinical experience in special education. NJSBA supports the legislation, which has been referred to the Assembly Education Committee.

Health Insurance Waiver Bill Held The Senate was also scheduled to take a vote on S-979, a bill that would prevent public employees from collecting a cash payout for declining health insurance with one public employer while accepting coverage from another. S-979 would also limit a public employee of the state, a local government, or a local board of education to receiving health care benefits coverage from only one public employer of this state, if the employee holds more than one public position simultaneously. If the employee has a spouse who is also a public employee eligible for health care benefits coverage from a public employer of this state, the employee and spouse would be required to select coverage together under only one plan or program. The bill also prohibits a public employee so limited from continuing to receive any payment from the employee’s public employer for waiving the health care benefits coverage provided by the employer.

When the bill was posted for a Senate vote, it also limited the amount of a health insurance waiver incentive that a board of education that offers health care benefits through a private carrier would be able to offer to its employees to an amount not to exceed 25 percent, or $5,000, whichever is less, of the amount saved by the board of education because of the waiver. Current law already contains such a provision for local government employees that offer insurance through private carriers and for the State Health Benefits Program and the School Employees’ Health Benefits Program. This provision would have closed a long-standing loophole in state law and established consistency and parity across all levels of government. Unfortunately, this provision was removed through a floor amendment.

As S-979 has the potential to save significant taxpayer money without diminishing the level of health care benefits provided to school district staff, the NJSBA generally supports the legislation. The NJSBA is continuing to work with the sponsor on amendments to help bring the bill to passage.

Assembly Committee Moves to Reduce College Costs The Assembly Higher Education Committee met on Thursday, Oct. 27, to consider a package of bills aimed at helping New Jersey residents better navigate the college process before, during and after their time on campus. Two of those measures impact the K-12 education community and both are supported by the NJSBA.

A-4087 establishes the “New Jersey College Ready Students Program Act.” Under the bill, the commissioner of education, in consultation with the Secretary of Higher Education, is directed to establish a program to provide for the tuition-free enrollment of certain public high school students who enroll in dual enrollment courses at a local county college.

In determining eligibility for the tuition benefit provided pursuant to the bill, the criteria will be the same as the eligibility standards needed to qualify for financial assistance from the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund. A student may receive up to 3 credits tuition-free per semester, and no more than 6 credits tuition-free in a school year in each of the 11th and 12th grades. Under the bill, the state will bear the cost of tuition for students who participate in the program. As the bill will have an impact on the state’s finances, it now goes before the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

A-4088 establishes a “High School to College Readiness Commission.” Under the bill, the commission will consist of 18 members including: the Commissioner of Education, the Secretary of Higher Education, and the executive director of the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, and 11 members from various associations representing the K-12 and higher education communities. The New Jersey School Boards Association will have a representative on the commission. The commission will study and develop recommendations on “issues related to enhancing student preparation for postsecondary education and raising the awareness of students and parents on the admission requirements and other issues associated with postsecondary education.” The bill is primed for floor vote by the full General Assembly.

School Bus Safety Bill Advances On Thursday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee released A-1257, which requires school buses transporting students using wheelchairs to be equipped with a four-point securement system. Under current federal regulations, each school bus that is designed to carry a passenger who uses a wheelchair must have no less than four wheelchair securement anchorages. Therefore, to the extent that the bill’s requirements are consistent with current federal regulations, the legislation will not lead to an increase in school districts’ expenditures.

The committee also advanced A-2529, which provides for the replacement of incandescent light bulbs in public school buildings with energy-efficient light bulbs. Under the bill, each board of education will be required to replace all incandescent light bulbs in public school buildings with energy-efficient light bulbs whenever possible beginning three years after the effective date of the bill. The bill also requires, commencing three years after the effective date, each board of education to purchase energy-efficient light bulbs for use in public school buildings to the maximum extent practicable.