New Jersey’s public schools and districts have always been governed by extensive regulation, for they bear responsibility for one of the most important jobs in the public sector – educating and maintaining the daily safety and well-being of the state’s 1.4 million public schoolchildren.
Thousands of pages of statute and administrative code guide New Jersey’s roughly 580 public school districts, covering everything from fiscal operations to facilities, and from school board member training to travel. Included among the myriad regulations are those that were enacted to implement the School District Accountability Act, which was signed into law in 2007.
History of the Regulations The Accountability Regulations were legislatively authorized in July 2008 by the commissioner of education, who was empowered as the rule-making authority over a number of recently-enacted school district accountability statutes. Promulgated as N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-1 through 15 on July 1, 2008, and finalized on Dec. 18, 2008, these specially-adopted Commissioner Accountability Regulations lasted for one year, then were later readopted by Commissioner Lucille Davy on Nov. 25, 2009.
The finance and business services rules at N.J.A.C. 6A:23, that continued under the State Board of Education’s rulemaking authority, were also reviewed, amended and readopted by the State Board of Education at that time, and were re-codified at N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-16 through 22 as part of the Accountability Regulations.
All school finance rules, including the Commissioner Accountability Regulations, are now included in one administrative chapter, N.J.A.C. 6A:23A.
The Accountability Regulations were a collection of regulatory responses to a handful of alleged abuses in school districts, mostly incidents that were singular in nature. Many of the regulations were previous requirements that had been applicable only to the Abbott districts. Upon adoption, all school districts are now governed by these regulations.
While created to promote public school efficiency and address alleged fiscal abuse in some New Jersey school districts, the Accountability Regulations have led to what some consider an unwarranted burden placed on school districts, requiring excessive administrative work and cost, with negligible benefit to public education.
In the words of several New Jersey school officials, who responded to a survey on the regulations conducted by the New Jersey School Boards Association’s Accountability Regulations Task Force as part of its review, various provisions of the regulations were described as follows:
- “One more distraction from education” – A business administrator, responding to a question about professional services contracts.
- “Local rule should determine how we spend our money” – A board president, in response to a survey question about administrator contract review.
- “A broad stroke to address a problem in a few places” – A superintendent, in reply to a survey question about travel policies and procedures.
Task Force Formed The regulations were due to sunset in November 2016 (although that date has since been extended to May 2017), and were expected to be reissued. In anticipation of that, NJSBA’s Task Force on New Jersey’s Accountability Regulations was established by NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod in the fall of 2015, with its first meeting held on Nov. 19, 2015. The task force included local school board members; resource persons representing the state’s executive county school business administrators and the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials; local school district administrators; and NJSBA staff members. It was chaired by Michael Kaelber, NJSBA director of legal and labor relations services. See the sidebar at right for a full listing of members.
“Our goal is to make sure that the new regulations promote responsible action and accountability, but do not handcuff school boards and their administrative staffs with red tape, restrictions and additional expense,” explained Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod.
The task force was charged with the following activities:
- Analyze the current regulations including, but not limited to, provisions addressing administrator and board member accountability; review and approval of administrator contracts; school district fiscal accountability; effective and efficient expenditures; conditions for the receipt of state aid; travel policies and procedures; and budget review procedures.
- Consult with experts on school district financial operations at the local, county and state levels, including the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials.
- Collect data from local school districts concerning their experience with the current regulations, including their effectiveness, ease or burden of implementation, and cost.
- Develop a plan to advocate for new and revised regulations, designed to ensure responsible and efficient school business and non-instructional operations without placing administrative and/or financial burdens on local districts.
Research Conducted The Accountability Regulations Task Force conducted extensive research in pursuit of its goal.
For each regulation, the task force used an analysis template that included a review of the following, relevant to each section:
- NJSBA policies and positions on education;
- NJSBA commentary on the 2009 re-adoption of the Accountability Regulations;
- Recommendation of the Education Transformation Task Force; and
- Legislative history.
The task force also considered, as part of its deliberations, the NJSBA Final Report on the Study of the Impact of the Salary Cap on Chief School Administrators, issued in 2014 and the Leadership for Educational Excellence (LEE) Commentary on the Accountability Regulations.
Survey Taken As a major piece of its research, the task force also conducted an online survey of local school board presidents, superintendents and school business administrators, gathering their input on a dozen of the most prominent and oft-discussed regulations. During the three-week period of collecting responses, from March 17 to April 8, 2016, a total of 274 responses were received. This number represents input from nearly 40 percent of the state’s public school districts. The results of this survey, which are included as appendice C in the final report, informed the task force’s decision making.
The Deliberative Process Throughout its review, the task force used a series of basic principles in deliberation. Those principles include:
- Preservation of local control;
- Impact of the 2 percent property tax levy, which was not in effect at the inception of the regulations. To the extent that the 2 percent cap constrains expenditures, are some of the regulations still necessary?
- Caps within caps, such as the CSA salary caps, administrative cost limits, and other caps on expenditures, such as public relations, professional services, publication costs and employee recognition awards;
- Review of cost limits, with an eye towards amending them to reflect current economic practices, regional cost differences or indexing costs to a particular level, e.g. CPI, IRS rates, etc.;
- Reaffirming practices that promote effective and efficient expenditures;
- Clarification of language, including removal and updating of dates as necessary;
- Elimination of items already completed;
- Review and update the regulations to reflect current practices; and
- Reduction of duplication in the regulations.
The NJSBA Task Force on New Jersey’s Accountability Regulations met on nine occasions, from Nov. 19, 2015 through June 15, 2016. Each meeting was held at NJSBA headquarters in Trenton.
Major highlights of the task force’s recommendations include:
1. Review of employee contracts for superintendents, assistant superintendents and school business administrators – including the CSA salary cap subsection.
The chief school administrator salary cap establishes maximum salaries based on district enrollment, with stipends and bonuses allowed in some situations. This highly-publicized “cap within a cap” has increased CSA turnover, leading to a lack of continuity of school district leadership at a crucial time in public education. The task force believes school boards should have the flexibility within the state’s 2 percent tax levy cap, to spend as they feel it is appropriate.
In the survey conducted by the Accountability Regulations Task Force, the CSA salary cap prompted the strongest single reaction – 68.6 percent of 274 respondents said it is “detrimental or somewhat detrimental,” while 10.6 percent deemed it “beneficial or somewhat beneficial.” An additional 20.8 percent said it had no impact, or responded “don’t know.” This question also prompted 133 comments, the largest number of comments received on any single question in the survey.
The task force recommended that the CSA salary cap be eliminated.
2. Additional measures to ensure effective and efficient expenditure of funds: public relations and professional services, plus expenditures for meals and refreshments
This regulation governs districts’ and charter schools’ use of public relations services and legal services. The task force believes the section should be revised to allow more flexibility and local control, for example, on the requirements limiting who shall be permitted to contact the board attorney. The task force recommends restrictions on public relations services should be reconsidered, such as eliminating the half-time public relations employee restriction, and accounting for regional cost differences.
The restriction on school district and charter school expenditures for certain activities, such as meals and refreshments for employees at district events, prompted significant reaction among participants in the task force survey. More than 50 percent of respondents to the survey said the regulation pertaining to meals and refreshments is detrimental or somewhat detrimental, and that barring these activities wholesale has a negative effect on morale and positive school culture.
The state’s 2 percent tax levy cap on school spending already requires deliberate review of all such costs, in order to maintain effective and efficient expenditure of school funds, so this section is largely unnecessary. The task force recommended the regulations allow for reasonable expenditures for staff recognition at events such as a back-to-school luncheon.
3. Conditions for receipt of state aid: nepotism policy
The task force believes the definitions of “relative” and “immediate family member,” as they pertain to public school districts and charter schools, should match those definitions included in the School Ethics Act. The task force questioned the necessity of this regulation, however, since the Legislature has established the School Ethics Act, and the School Ethics Commission, to govern school official ethical conduct.
4. School district travel policy and procedures
School boards are required to have policies and procedures in place pertaining to employees’ and school board members’ travel for purposes of professional development. Yet, while both district employees’ and board members’ goals are to further the quality of education in a district, the two groups are treated differently in terms of travel. The task force recommends that expenditures for travel and professional development be treated the same for board members as for employees, such that an annual dollar amount be set for travel and professional development for which additional board approval is not required. The task force also recommended that regulations be revised to permit post-event approval for board member attendance at conferences, training events and programs; and that the prohibition on reimbursement for overnight travel, for trips of less than 50 miles, be eliminated.
5. Administrative cost limits
The task force recommended that the state’s administrative cost limits should be eliminated. Simply said, New Jersey’s school districts already function under the restriction of a 2 percent tax levy cap, which controls all school district spending by requiring a deliberate review of all costs. To impose an additional limitation on administrative spending is creating a “cap within a cap.” In addition, New Jersey is one of the lowest states in the nation when it comes to administrative spending.
6. Tuition for public schools and for private schools for children with disabilities
The task force considered separately the questions of establishing tuition rates and increases for public schools, such as vocational-technical technical schools and county special services schools; and for private schools for students with disabilities. In both cases, the task force recommended that tuition increases should have an annual cap equal to the tax levy cap of the sending school district. In the case of public schools, the task force also recommended that local districts should not be required to pay tuition to vocational-technical schools whose programs duplicate the local school district’s, and that the average daily enrollment should reflect the actual practice of calculating that enrollment.
The NJSBA Accountability Regulations Task Force report contains, in all, 67 separate recommendations, all of which are important in that they affect the efficient and productive operation of the state’s public schools. The remainder of the recommendations of the NJSBA Accountability Regulations Task Force may be found in the report, which is posted in its entirety on the NJSBA website.
In the fall of 2016, the report’s analysis and recommendations were shared with the president of the State Board of Education and the Commissioner of Education.
Update on Status of Regulations Sunset On Nov. 16, the New Jersey Department of Education released proposed revisions to the regulations, including significant changes to the salary cap provision. By virtue of the filing of the proposed revisions, the regulations will now sunset on May 24, 2017.
On the salary cap, the proposed regulations would adjust salary maximums, allow for “retention” increases, and make other changes to the cap process.
The existing regulations cap salaries at maximum amounts based on six enrollment categories. The Nov. 16 proposal would consolidate the enrollment categories into three groups, with increased salary maximums.
Significantly, it would also allow districts to increase the salaries of superintendents who are at maximum and who accept new contracts by 2 percent for each year of the new agreement.
NJSBA released a statement shortly after proposed revisions to the salary cap were issued, that restated the Association’s position on the caps. “While we appreciate movement on this issue, we are disappointed that the salary cap concept would remain in effect,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, NJSBA executive director. “The compensation package for the district’s chief education officer should be the purview of the local school board, which is responsible for the local governance of public education.”
At School Leader press time, the NJDOE was conducting public hearings on the proposed regulations.
The Accountability Regulations, N.J.A.C. 23A, were scheduled to sunset on Nov. 25, 2016. However, by virtue of the filing of the proposed revisions on Nov. 16, the current regulations will remain in effect for an additional 180 days and will sunset on May 24, 2017.
As permitted under a 2008 statute, the commissioner of education, rather than the State Board of Education, has authority to readopt sections one through 15 of the regulations, including the superintendent salary cap.
NJSBA will keep members updated on the proposed regulations in its weekly online newsletter, School Board Notes.