The New Jersey School Boards Association held a Legislative Committee meeting Dec. 10, hearing from three state assemblywomen on a variety of topics.

Irene LeFebvre, president of NJSBA; and Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director of NJSBA, welcomed attendees and thanked the three assemblywomen who joined as guest speakers: Assemblywomen Kim Eulner and Marilyn Piperno, both Republicans with Legislative District 11; and Assemblywoman Michele Matsikoudis, a Republican serving Legislative District 21.

Ray Pinney, the Association’s director of county activities and member engagement, welcomed the committee’s new members and thanked those who recently departed for their devoted service. “You step up outside of your district and commit to the people outside of your district (by serving on the Legislative Committee),” Pinney said. “Lots of times, people in your local community don’t see that commitment, but we at NJSBA really thank you for doing that.”

Dr. Karen Cortellino, vice president for legislation/resolutions at NJSBA, announced a quorum for the meeting and presided over the approval of the minutes from the Sept. 17 meeting.

She gave new Legislative Committee members a sneak preview of what they can expect through their service. “You will be informed of what is happening almost minute to minute in the Statehouse,” she said. That includes what bills are in the pipeline and what the Association is advocating for on behalf of members, she said. “To our departing board members, a heartfelt thank you,” she said.

Jonathan Pushman, director of governmental relations at NJSBA, who served as moderator during the meeting, shared with attendees how Gov. Phil Murphy recently met with the members of the LEE Group, a group of New Jersey educational organizations that includes NJSBA. “We had the opportunity to advocate for things such as school funding, safety and security and staff recruitment,” Pushman said. He applauded Murphy’s recent executive order creating a task force to address staff shortages.

Purnell, who has been appointed to serve on the task force, was able to speak directly to the governor about the fiscal pressures school districts face. He summed up his statement to the governor as this: “What, if anything, is the governor planning to do to help districts cope with increased costs? For example, significant increases in School Employees’ Health Benefits Program health care premiums will fall predominantly on boards of education, and unfortunately the 2020 health benefits reform law (“Chapter 44”) has not resulted in promised savings to boards of education or taxpayers. Other significant cost drivers include transportation, special education and general inflation. All of these are difficult to cope with under a hard 2% property tax cap. Meanwhile, ESSER funding, which has helped shield districts from higher costs, will eventually be depleted. Increased state financial support will be crucial to avoiding cuts to vital educational programming, staff and services.”

Assemblywomen Address a Range of Issues

During the meeting, the social, emotional and mental health of students was a continuing theme, with Pushman highlighting how in response to public feedback, the governor recently committed to maintaining funding for the existing School Based Youth Services Program in his fiscal year 2024 budget proposal . Pushman thanked the many NJSBA members who provided feedback on the importance of minimizing disruptions to the existing School Based Youth Services Program.

Eulner and Piperno singled out The Source at Red Bank Regional High School, which is committed to supporting the mental health, well-being and educational success of all students and is part of the School Based Youth Services Program, as an example of why they believe funding for the program should be maintained.

“What we need to do is take the playbook for The Source and put it in every school district,” Eulner said. “Let’s take away money from the Christmas tree pork spending we do every year.”

Matsikoudis, a member of the Assembly Education Committee, highlighted some of the legislation she is serving as a sponsor or co-sponsor for, including A-2617, which would establish a pilot program in the New Jersey Department of Education to provide assistive technology to elementary and middle school students with dyslexia and related conditions; and A-1516, which would establish certain program requirements for school counselor certification and outlines the role and duties of a school counselor, requires professional development for school counselors and establishes the position of school counselor liaison in the NJDOE. She also highlighted A-4021, which would require the commissioner of education to prepare a report on the learning loss of students with developmental disabilities during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

She also noted the staffing problems schools are facing, arguing that the state should focus on what she calls the three Rs: reciprocity, residency and retention. She noted that she is the primary sponsor of A-3989, which would remove basic skills testing requirements for certain teacher certification for three years.

Eulner mentioned A-3872, which would require school districts to provide instruction on mental health referral services as part of the implementation of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. She and Piperno are co-sponsors of the legislation.

One topic that the assemblywomen addressed throughout the meeting revolved around testing and assessments.

Piperno noted that she thinks students are being forced to take too many of both. While she thinks the intention is good, it is having a harmful effect on students developing a love for learning – and taking away from the love of teaching as well, she said.

Matsikoudis agreed, noting, “What happens at some point is that teachers start teaching to the test, which is not good and it takes them away from what they need to be doing … teaching students life skills and basics, such as math, language arts and everything else.”

Eulner highlighted A-3835, which she and Piperno co-sponsored and which was substituted by S-2426, which has been signed into law and involves the submission of critical mapping data to law enforcement.

Eulner and Piperno were also co-sponsors of A-4075, which has been signed into law and requires public schools to develop threat assessment teams. They are also among the co-sponsors of A-4808, which would require the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to administer the School Based Youth Services Program as currently established.

Eulner addressed the school funding formula, noting that she’d be in favor of “wiping the slate clean” and starting over. Districts in “the middle” economic status tend to be put at a disadvantage as a result of the formula, she said.

When Pushman asked if districts should be given some flexibility beyond the 2% property tax levy growth cap, Piperno said, “I think it is something that has to be revisited and looked at. Is there wiggle room to some degree to move that number at the very least?”

Governmental Relations Update

Capping off the meeting were Jesse Young, legislative advocate at NJSBA; and John Burns, senior legislative counsel, who delivered a detailed update on legislative developments as they pertain to public education.

They spoke in more detail about the governor’s decision to maintain funding for the existing School Based Youth Services Program in the fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, and how the Association lobbied to keep funding in place.

They also highlighted the previously mentioned S-2426, which has been signed into law and requires public and nonpublic schools to submit certain school map data to local law enforcement. Those images include aerial images of schools, floor plans of buildings and the location of different utility systems. While there had previously been a law requiring schools to share blueprints with law enforcement, the additional law is meant to give authorities user-friendly, actionable information in the event of a crisis, Young said. It is funded via $6.5 million from the American Rescue Plan, he said. According to the governor’s August 30 announcement, about half of New Jersey’s schools have already created the necessary mapping.

Burns and Young updated attendees about the edTPA bill that the governor conditionally vetoed.  They also highlighted changes in school ethics regulations that require newly elected or appointed board members to complete training within the first 90 days of their term, which is longer than the 60 days originally considered based on the Association’s input.

One bill that generated conversation during the meeting was A-4496, which would revise various provisions of law governing the construction of school facilities projects and operations of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority.

To view the full text of any of the bills summarized above, please visit the New Jersey Legislature’s website.