The “lame duck” portion of the 2014-2015 legislative session is in full swing with the Senate and General Assembly returning to the State House following the Assembly elections that took place earlier this month. Lame duck refers to the period of time between the November elections and when the Legislature reorganizes in mid-January to begin a new two-year session. This is typically a busy time in Trenton, and Monday was no exception with several legislative committees meeting to advance measures impacting New Jersey’s local school districts. Below is a breakdown of the day’s activity that is of particular relevance to NJSBA’s members.

Bills Approved by the Senate Education Committee:

A-2888/S-1039, as introduced, provides that, in addition to any other requirements adopted by the State Board of Education for teacher preparation programs, the State Board must require that the preparation program for an instructional certificate include a minimum of six semester credit hours in special education. NJSBA supported the bill, based on the belief that, prior to certification, all teachers should complete an appropriate educational program on understanding the nature and needs of students eligible for special education and related services. An amended version of the bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration. If approved by the Senate, the legislation must return to the Assembly (which unanimously passed an earlier version of the bill) to concur with Senate amendments.

S-445 requires 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 initiative will include dissemination of information and guidance to school districts regarding the development and effective implementation of a RTI framework as a methodology to identify struggling learners, maximize student achievement, and reduce behavioral problems. NJSBA supported the bill. The bill has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriation committee for further consideration.

S-447 requires the New Jersey Department of Education (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 bill, which is primed for a vote by the full Senate.

S-1766 prohibits the State Board of Education from limiting the number of professional education credits earned at a regionally accredited two-year college that may be applied towards meeting the requirements for teacher certification, provided that the credits are accepted by a state-approved college professional education preparation program. The bill may now be posted for a vote by the full Senate.

S-2727 establishes a 16-member NJDOE task force to study and evaluate issues associated with school district regionalization. The task force will study regionalization, and make recommendations regarding the provision of regionalization incentives and the elimination of impediments to regionalization. If S-2727 becomes law, the task force will be required to issue a final report to the governor and the Legislature within six months of its organization, which contains the task force’s findings and recommendations. The NJSBA will have a representative on the task force and supports the legislation. The measure may now be posted for a vote by the full Senate.

S-3067 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 did not take 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 bill may now be posted for a vote by the full Senate.

S-3240 authorizes a school district to establish alternative education programs, including recovery high school alternative education programs, upon the approval of the board of education. The NJSBA supports the measure, which maintains local discretion regarding the establishment of alternative education programs. The bill is primed for vote by the full Senate.

S-3245, as introduced, requires the commissioner of education to include data on chronic absenteeism and disciplinary suspensions on the School Report Card and requires public schools to make certain efforts to combat chronic absenteeism. As introduced, the bill requires that, in the event that ten percent or more of the students enrolled in a public school are chronically absent, the school must convene a Chronic Absenteeism Coalition. The coalition must include at least one parent and one teacher from the school community, and such other members as determined appropriate by the principal. The purpose of the coalition will be to regularly review and monitor school chronic absenteeism and develop a corrective action plan to improve absenteeism rates. The coalition must annually present its findings and recommendations to the board of education until the percentage of the student body that is chronically absent falls below ten percent. The bill was amended in committee and has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

S-3247 eliminates the $500,000 cap on the cost of Schools Development Authority (former Abbott) district school facilities projects that may be constructed by an SDA district and included in capital outlay budget. However, doing so would need to be approved by the NJDOE. The bill may now be posted for a vote by the full Senate.

SR-147 urges the NJDOE and local school districts to work collaboratively to develop and implement creative solutions to address the issue of chronic absenteeism in New Jersey’s public schools.

Bills Approved by the Assembly Education Committee:

A-447 would create a task force to study issues related to the establishment of full-day kindergarten. The 21-member task force, which will include a representative from NJSBA, would consider several issues, including existing research concerning full-day kindergarten; implementation issues associated with full-day kindergarten such as staffing needs, facility space, and class size; funding needed; curriculum comparisons between full-day kindergarten and half-day kindergarten; opinions and recommendations of parents and elementary school teachers; and the feasibility of offering full-day kindergarten in school districts statewide.

Similar legislation was passed last session but vetoed by the governor. In his veto message, the governor noted more than three-fourths of New Jersey school districts were offering full-day kindergarten, with the trend being more districts adding such service each year. Further, he noted the decision to offer full-day kindergarten should rest locally. The NJSBA supports the legislation.

A-1455, 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 therefore supports the measure. While acknowledging that the prospective nature of the bill should mitigate the adverse financial impact on school districts, the NJSBA did urge the Legislature to provide a funding source to offset the cost of installing the sensors.

A-2994 would permit high-performing districts to submit the NJQSAC report every seven years, rather than every three. Under the current school district monitoring system, the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC), every school district must submit a report every three years on its progress in complying with all of the quality performance indicators. Based on a district’s compliance with the indicators, the education commissioner assesses district capacity and effectiveness and places the district on a performance continuum that determines the type and level of oversight and technical support the district receives. Districts that satisfy 80 percent to 100 percent of the quality performance indicators in each of the five key components of school district effectiveness are deemed “high performing districts.” NJSBA supported the bill, which is primed for an Assembly floor vote.

A-3921 establishes a pilot program in the NJDOE to award pupil transportation contracts that exceed the bid threshold through a request for proposals. 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 nine school districts that would be selected, upon application to the NJDOE, to participate in the pilot program with the option of entering into such a contract through an RFP process.

The bill would allow the pilot districts to evaluate bids on criteria in addition to cost, including information such as the previous experience and safety records of contractors in transporting pupils.

Official NJSBA policy states 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 or any district employee or representative being transported by a school bus vendor. Therefore, the NJSBA supports the legislation, which may now be posted for an Assembly floor vote.

A-4036 authorizes a board of education that includes grades nine through 12 to establish a community service credit program. The program will allow a high school student to earn credit as an optional elective towards the high school graduation requirements upon the completion of an approved community service activity. The NJSBA supports the legislation as amendments adopted by the committee make the bill’s provisions permissive, rather than mandatory. The bill may now go before the full Assembly.

A-4044/S-1594 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. In general, the NJSBA supports the measure. However, the Association did raise concerns with committee amendments that limit taking away recess as a disciplinary measure to no more than two times per week. NJSBA staff testified that the language was too descriptive for inclusion in the legislation, and should be a local decision within the school district. Staff will continue to work with the sponsor to address the NJSBA’s concerns. The bill may now go before the full Assembly. If passed, the bill must return to Senate, which passed a previous version of the bill, to concur with Assembly amendments.

A-4567 prohibits a school district under state governance from leasing a building as a lessee, if the total costs of the lease exceed the purchase price of the building. The bill may now be posted for an Assembly floor vote.

Bills Approved by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee:

S-167 and S-1840, two government records bills that were merged in committee, would require that a records custodian inform a requester if the record is available on the government website and provide the specific address or other direct means for locating the record. The substitute bill also requires the custodian to post the following items on a searchable Internet website, maintained by, or made available to, the custodian: minutes, agendas, budgets, employee salary, employment contracts, collective bargaining agreements, resolutions, and ordinances. Such material must remain on the website for five years. NJSBA expressed its concerns to the bills’ sponsors about the costs of posting and maintaining the information on district websites. The merged bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations committee for additional consideration.

S-3221 seeks to help curtail the practice whereby student-athletes seek to gain athletic advantage at the high school level by repeating sixth, seventh, or eighth grade despite having met the academic requirements for those grades. The bill requires the N.J. Interscholastic Athletic Association to adopt a rule that when a “hold-back repeat student” enters the ninth grade for the first time, the student will be eligible to participate in interscholastic athletics for only the next ensuing six consecutive semesters or risk losing local school districts as members. The bill defines a “hold-back repeat student” as a student who has successfully completed the academic requirements that have been established for the sixth, seventh, or eighth grades and who repeats one or more of these grades prior to entering the ninth grade for purposes of gaining athletic advantage. The bill may now head to the Senate floor for a vote by the full membership.