Task Force Calls for Less Regulation
Gov. Chris Christie's eight-member Education Transformation Task Force issued its final recommendations on Sept. 5, including the elimination or amendment of 428 regulations and changes to 46 statutes. The task force was asked to ferret out overly prescriptive regulations and laws and identify ways to improve the accountability process.
The 239-page document covers the entire education landscape, including licensure, facility planning, standards and assessment, monitoring, professional development, and special education. Significantly, the report recommends elimination or amendment to many of the 2008 Accountability Regulations, and it calls for changes in laws governing school personnel practices.
Any recommended changes would require action by the state Board of Education or Legislature.
Focus on Schools, Not Districts The transformation report dovetails with the New Jersey Department of Education's federally approved waiver of No Child Left Behind requirements. That plan focuses state involvement on persistently underperforming schools, rather than on school districts, through six regional achievement centers (RACs).
The transformation task force called for revision to the state's monitoring process (the Quality Single Accountability Continuum). While the final report cites support for the 2011 amendments that reduced the number of indicators to measure district performance from 334 to 54, the panel called for a complete change in the focal point of monitoring from school districts to individual school buildings.
The panel wrote, "In the longer term, the Task Force encourages the Department to develop and propose an alternative to QSAC that would be school-based in focus and consistent with…the new NCLB framework…"
Funding In addition, some task force recommendations support aspects of another administration "blueprint" document, the commissioner of education's February 2012 Education Funding Report. Those recommendations formed the basis of 2012-2013 state aid distribution. In particular, the transformation task force called for ending the statutory requirement that school districts' October 15 enrollment be a factor in distributing state aid. Like the Education Funding Report, the transformation task force document recommends use of average daily attendance, stating that it is a more accurate measure.
Labor Relations Changes The task force recommended the following critical changes in labor relations and personnel practices, long-sought by NJSBA:
- Eliminate LIFO (last in, first out). "The Task Force affirms it support…for legislation to end the requirement that any layoffs be based on seniority rather than on factors such as effectiveness in the classroom."
- Reinstate "last best offer." Until 2003, a local school board could implement its last best offer when contract negotiations were fully exhausted. The practice occurred just over a dozen times during the previous 35 years, but it balanced the collective bargaining process. "Restrictions on contract negotiations unfairly disadvantage school boards in the process…eliminating this ban would help school districts save taxpayer funds."
- Eliminate salary guide/seniority restrictions in new regional districts. The task force called for eliminating statutes requiring (a) that the contract of the largest (and usually highest paying) district apply to a new regional school system and (b) that newly created regional districts preserve all staff seniority rights, making it likely that any reduction in force be based on length of service exclusively. Both provisions have presented financial obstacles to regionalization.
- Eliminate ‘no-penalty for no-work' on holidays. The task force called for removal of statute that allows school staff to take off on state holidays without penalty, even if school is in session. This statutorily required benefit has been used as the basis for job actions by unions during negotiations.
- End minimum sick leave. According to the task force, the Legislature should amend statute governing school employee sick leave by eliminating any reference to a minimum number of sick days (currently set at 10). Instead, sick-leave terms should be determined through the local collective bargaining process.
Other Personnel Matters In addition, the panel recommended the following changes in staffing practices:
- Change board's role in staff appointment/assignment. The task force recommended eliminating the school board's approval of certain personnel matters. States the report: "School boards should retain the authority to approve or deny the creation and funding of positions, in keeping with their governance function, but should not perform the management functions of hiring, transferring, or suspending specific employees, with the exception of the superintendent. Either the superintendent or his or her designee is best positioned to make personnel decisions."
- Remove tenure for non-instructional staff. "The local negotiating process can best determine what combination of salaries, sick leave and vacation benefits, and job protections makes sense for non-teaching staff," wrote the task force.
- Recalibrate professional development. The panel recommended that professional development be focused on how it enables teachers to advance student learning, rather than simply being a matter of fulfilling 100 hours of training within five years. "…the focus of professional development will shift from compliance to successful completion of relevant, effective training that meaningfully improves the quality of teaching in the classroom and that is informed by the findings of annual evaluations."
Accountability Regulations In testimony to the task force, NJSBA raised concerns about the state's 2008 Accountability Regulations, which it found overly intrusive. A 2009 report by NJSBA, supported by the New Jersey Association of School Business Administrators, showed that provisions intended to save money actually posed additional costs to districts.
The Transformation Task Force recommended changes to many of these requirements. According to the panel, the 2 percent tax levy cap on local school districts budgets diminished the need for many of these restrictions. Areas recommended for elimination or revision include the following:
- Second financial audit. The panel recommends changing the second audit requirement, which applies to any district receiving 50 percent or more of its revenue through state aid. Instead, regulations should require an additional audit, which poses additional costs, only in those districts where the state has identified fiscal or operational irregularities.
- Target staffing ratios. The task force called for elimination of provisions that require the state to consider specific staffing benchmarks when reviewing proposed school budgets for efficiency. As one example, the panel pointed to the ratio of one custodian for every 17,500 square feet of facility space. Such calculations were intended be general fiscal guidelines, but have "come to establish an unintended norm for all districts" and now pose an unnecessary restriction on local decision-making, according to the task force.
- Documentation for school-related travel. In place of the time-consuming process of providing the state with extensive documentation to support school district travel expenditures, the school business administrator should provide an annual "travel statement of assurance," developed by the NJDOE Division of Finance.
- Restrictions on salary guide placement. The task force recommended deletion of a provision requiring that districts place new hires for vacant positions only on step one of salary guides. "In light of the 2 percent property tax cap, which properly constrains increases in aggregate district spending, district administrators and educators should have the flexibility to attract and hire the best educators," stated the report.
- Classroom aides. The panel recommended eliminating a prohibition against the use of classroom aides whose employment is not specifically required by statute or a student's individual education program.
- Public relations staffing. The Accountability Regulations limit public relations work to no more than 50 percent of a position's responsibilities. The task force recommended eliminating this restriction, as its report stated that "decisions about how to best keep families and the community informed and empowered should be left to districts."
Facility Planning, Special Ed Other task force recommendations include a change in long-range facility planning. Current plans require the retention of demographers and other consultants, even if the district has no plans to construct additional facilities, according to the panel. "School districts have other means for managing and documenting their long-term needs…"
The Transformation Task Force also conducted an extensive review of special education regulations. In one of several sections addressing private schools for students with disabilities, the task force called for a new method to determine the tuition that such facilities charge public school districts. It also recommended that such schools be allowed to provide public school districts with child study team services, similar to arrangements now permitted with educational services commissions, jointures and other school districts.
School Board Notes will provide readers with information on legislation and code proposals emanating from the task force's recommendations.