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Legislative Corner – March/April 2014

Legislative Corner

The 216th Legislative session is now underway.  While no education-related legislation has been signed into law in the first two months of the session, there has been plenty of activity in and around the State House.  The following provides an overview of what the Legislature has been up to recently, and what lies ahead.

Social Media Policies May Soon Be Required

So far, one bill that the NJSBA is actively tracking has made its way onto the Governor’s desk.  S-441 would require all school districts to adopt policies concerning electronic communications between school employees and students.  Under the provisions of the bill, such policies must include, at a minimum, provisions designed to prevent improper electronic communications between employees and students.  While requiring all districts to adopt a new policy, the bill does not specify exactly what each school district policy must include.  Instead, the legislation grants local boards of education considerable discretion and autonomy in formulating a policy on electronic communications that reflects a particular community’s preferences.  The NJSBA supports the legislation.

Silent Alarm Bill Moving Again

Last session, the Legislature sent Governor Christie a school security measure that would have required public school buildings to be equipped with an emergency light and panic alarm linked to local law enforcement.  The bill (A-373) has been reintroduced this session and has already received approval of the full Assembly. The bill requires the funds of the Schools Development Authority to pay for the full costs of installing emergency lights and panic alarms.  This provision alleviates the NJSBA’s earlier concerns that the legislation would impose an unfunded mandate on districts.  The legislation passed the full Assembly and awaits consideration by the Senate.  As long as a funding source remains in the bill, the NJSBA will continue to support it. 

School Breakfast Bill Package Advances

A number of bills aimed at expanding school breakfast programs have received legislative consideration.  Here is a rundown of those bills, along with NJSBA’s position and their status as of the end of March:

  • A-679/2186 encourages the establishment of “Breakfast After the Bell” programs in New Jersey schools.  The program focuses on school districts that have a majority of students who qualify for free and reduced-lunches; those districts can also receive reimbursement for breakfast from the federal government. 
  • NJSBA Position: Support
  • Status: Passed full Assembly.  No movement in Senate.
  • A-2840 requires a public school operated by a district in which 5 percent or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to establish a school breakfast program in the school. Under current law, a school with 5 percent or more of those eligible students must have a school lunch program and a school with 20 percent or more of those eligible students must have a school breakfast program. While the NJSBA supports expansion of the school breakfast program, we have raised concern that some districts may not get enough federal funding to pay for it. 
  • NJSBA Position: Seek amendment to address cost concerns
  • Status: Reported from Assembly committee.  No movement in Senate.
  • A-1796 prohibits school district from denying student school breakfast or school lunch because payment is in arrears without prior notice to parent.
  • NJSBA Position: Monitor
  • Status: Passed full Assembly.  No movement in Senate.
  • A-2644 directs the Department of Agriculture to establish a clearinghouse website for farmers to offer produce and dairy products for use by school breakfast programs, school lunch programs, and food banks.
  • NJSBA Position: Monitor
  • Status: Passed full Assembly.  No movement in Senate.

Farm-to-School Bills Receive Broad Support

Several measures promoting farm-to-school programs and school gardens have also moved forward in recent weeks.  The following bills, all of which the NJSBA supported, received unanimous approval of the General Assembly and have been sent to the Senate for further consideration:

A-56 requires the Department of Agriculture to post on its website certain information regarding the state's Farm-to-School program.

A-2642 allows contributions to the New Jersey Farm-to-School program.

A-2643 establishes a "Best in New Jersey 'Farm-to-School' Awards Program" to annually recognize the best farm-to-school programs implemented by a school or school district.

AJR-56 designates the school week immediately following the second Sunday in May each year as "School Garden Week."

FY2015 Budget Process Underway

In February, Governor Christie submitted his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015.  Education highlights of the proposed budget include:

  • Approximately $9 billion in direct aid to school districts.  This amount includes a $36.8 million, or 0.4%, increase over FY2014 aid levels.
  • $13.5 million in Per Pupil Aid Growth spread across all school districts.
  • $13.5 million in PARCC Readiness Aid to help districts purchase technology required to implement new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments.
  • $5 million “Innovation Fund” – Competitive grant program to support districts that develop different approaches to extend student learning time (e.g., longer school day or year).
  • $26.5 million in SDA construction grant assessments.  This amount remains flat compared to FY2014.

The Senate and Assembly Budget Committees have concluded public hearings on the budget and will now move on to scrutinizing the budgets of individual state departments and agencies.  The Commissioner of Education is scheduled to testify before the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee on Thursday, April 3rd and the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday, May 5th.  Officials from the Schools Development Authority are slated to join the Commissioner at both hearings.

The NJSBA’s official statement and analysis of the proposed FY2015 budget can be found here.

S.T.E.M. Bill Released from Budget Committee

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved S-225, which establishes the four-year “New Jersey Innovation Inspiration School Grant Pilot Program” in the New Jersey Department of Education. The pilot program will award grants to school districts to support non-traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching methods for students in grades 9 through 12, support the participation of students in nonprofit STEM competitions, foster innovation and broaden interest in careers in STEM fields, and encourage collaboration among students, engineers, and professional mentors.  The bill may now be posted for a vote by the full Senate.  The Assembly, which approved the bill last session, has yet to consider it this session.

EPI-Pen Legislation Stalls

In February, the Assembly Education Committee released A-304, which would require requires schools to maintain a supply of epinephrine and permit the administration of epinephrine to any student having an allergic reaction.   Since then, the bill has not progressed any further.  While the NJSBA supports measures that promote the health and safety of students, we have raised concerns about the financial impact this legislation would have on school districts.

New Push to Repeal Caps on CSA Salaries and Administrative Spending

Two pieces of legislation that promote flexibility in school district spending have been introduced in the Legislature recently.

A-2930 and S-1987 would eliminate the superintendent salary cap by prohibiting the Department of Education from regulating the maximum salary amount a school district may pay its superintendent.  The bill addresses a major concern of many districts that have seen their superintendents leave rather than take a significant salary reduction.   NJSBA had testified in opposition to this regulation as an infringement on local district autonomy.  Since the 2 percent tax levy cap took effect shortly after the adoption of this regulation the additional savings it generated for taxpayers were not significant.  The NJSBA has drafted a sample resolution that boards can adopt to express their support for the legislation.

A- 2740 would eliminate the administrative spending cap built into the School Funding Reform Act to allow districts flexibility to address administrative costs associated with various education reform measures including the costs associated with TEACH NJ. 

A-2930 and A-2740 have been referred to the Assembly Education Committee, while S-1987 goes to the Senate Education Committee.  The NJSBA supports both measures.

In Other State House News…

The Governor nominated David Hespe to replace Chris Cerf as the Commissioner of Education.  Mr. Hespe, a former NJDOE Chief of Staff in the Christie and Whitman administrations, awaits a confirmation hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The NJSBA testified at a hearing of the Assembly Education Committee that focused on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards.