Members of the New Jersey School Boards Association’s Legislative Committee heard from Sen. Vin Gopal, a Democrat from Legislative District 11 who chairs the Senate Education Committee, during a virtual meeting Dec. 16.

Legislative Committee members also discussed the Association’s advocacy agenda for 2024-2025, which will be reviewed and voted on by NJSBA’s board of directors at its January meeting. Attendees bid farewell to departing committee and board members and conducted a variety of other important business.

Chanta L. Jackson, NJSBA’s vice president for legislation and resolutions, thanked attendees for joining a Saturday meeting during the busy holiday season.

Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director and CEO of NJSBA, delivered opening remarks, thanking the Governmental Relations team for their hard work. “In the spirit of unity, let us reaffirm our commitment to advocating for the well-being of children and transcending partisan lines,” he said. “I am grateful for all the work you do. May our collaborative efforts continue to make a positive impact on education.”

Karen Cortellino, M.D., NJSBA’s president, also thanked members of the committee, noting “If we want to help our situation, improve it, and fight for it, then this is the committee to do it because you are interfacing with the people who write the laws. I want to thank all of you for your hard work and advocacy.”

Jackson introduced Gopal, noting that he has made student mental health, alleviating the teacher shortage and school funding some of his top priorities.

Gopal highlighted various pieces of legislation and expressed his appreciation to board members who are serving during a particularly contentious time. He noted that fewer members of the public are running to serve on their local board of education, which he attributes to partisanship and bickering that has changed what it means to serve on a school board.

It is not healthy when political parties are endorsing candidates, Gopal said. He’d prefer to see serving on a board of education remain nonpartisan.

Gopal also spoke about the school funding formula, noting that S-2, the legislation that sought to “rebalance” the state’s funding formula established through the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, is coming to an end. He highlighted how transportation, special education and other costs are burgeoning for many districts, and how important it is to support school districts as they focus on helping students recover from learning loss suffered during the pandemic.

“We need a new school funding formula,” he said, adding that it will be one of his priorities in the upcoming year.

He also expressed hope that he and other legislators would develop a strong working relationship with whomever replaces Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan as the acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, as she announced she’ll be retiring at the end of January 2024.

“I want to make sure we don’t keep you guessing or give you unfunded mandates and that we work in collaboration,” Gopal said.

In regard to the teacher shortage, he observed that political attacks continue to be waged against teachers, which has caused some to rethink whether they want to enter the profession. To help solve the problem, legislators need to look at the overall climate and eliminate some of the burdens that prevent people from entering and staying in the profession.

After Gopal shared closing remarks, Jonathan Pushman, the Association’s director of governmental relations, who served as the moderator of the meeting, teamed up with Jesse Young, legislative advocate, and John Burns, senior legislative counsel, to provide attendees with a detailed rundown of recently enacted legislation as well as bills that are currently being considered by lawmakers.

One of the bills they highlighted was one that would result in no budget vote in April. The bill, S-4209/A-5879, would eliminate the vote on school budgets for Type II school districts in April elections, except for separate proposals to spend above the cap. It would also permit November districts to ask a second question at the April election. The bill also would create start and end dates for board member terms of 1/1-12/31 for November districts and 5/1-4/30 for April districts rather than terms starting and ending at organization meeting. The proposed dates, however, create a gap between term end dates and the organization meeting, during which the board would not have a full complement of members. NJSBA supports the primary purpose of the bill but has concerns on the changes to the term dates and is seeking amendments to the bill.

There was also a lively discussion revolving around a bill, A-1181/S-2054, which would require high school students to complete financial aid applications as prerequisite for receiving a high school diploma.

“We do not want to set the precedent of tying that to graduation,” Pushman said, noting that stakeholders have done a lot of work to ensure there is a robust waiver process, and that if the bill passes, it would be re-evaluated three years after its enactment to ensure it was having the desired effect.

The governmental relations team also highlighted bills meant to alleviate staffing shortages, various pieces of legislation involving school finance and school construction projects and bills targeting a variety of other issues.