On Monday, Dec. 19, both the full Senate and General Assembly met for what was likely the final voting session of the 2016 calendar year. The Legislature is now approaching the mid-point of the current two-year legislative session. The following provides a summary of any education-related bills that have been sent to the governor’s desk, as well as any others that the Legislature advanced over the past week.

Lead Testing and Childhood Lead Poisoning Legislation A-3539 would require public and nonpublic schools to test for and remediate lead in drinking water, and to disclose test results. NJSBA supported the bill with concerns and sent an email to all legislators.

Under the bill, each school district, charter school, and nonpublic school would be required to undertake periodic testing of each drinking water outlet in each school for the presence of lead. The tests would be conducted by a certified laboratory in accordance with sampling and testing methods specified in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) technical guidance for reducing lead in drinking water at schools, or more protective guidance issued by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The initial tests would be conducted no later than 90 days after the effective date of the bill, and subsequent tests conducted every five years thereafter, unless the DEP determines, on a case-by-case basis, that more or less frequent testing is necessary or sufficient to protect the public health.

An exemption may be obtained from the requirement to conduct initial testing if the school or district demonstrates to the DEP that it has conducted testing that substantially complies with the technical guidance within two years prior to the effective date of the bill, and any drinking water outlet that was found to have an elevated lead level has either been removed from service or remediated. Assistance from a local health agency or public water system may also be provided to help ensure compliance with the bill. Nothing in the bill would prevent more frequent testing than required. The testing requirements would not apply to a school district, charter school, or nonpublic school that is considered a public water system under federal law and meets the applicable standards for lead in drinking water.

If testing conducted reveals an elevated lead level at a drinking water outlet, the requirement would be to immediately close off access to that outlet and report the test results to the DEP. Follow-up testing would then be required to determine the source of the lead, and the district would be required to take appropriate remedial measures to ensure that students are not exposed to water with an elevated lead level and have access to free, fresh, and clean drinking water. This may include permanently shutting or closing off access to the drinking water outlet, providing an alternative source of water, manual or automatic flushing, installing and maintaining a filter, and replacing outlets, plumbing, or service lines contributing to the elevated lead level.

The district or school would be required to submit to the NJDEP, N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE) and the N.J. Department of Health (NJDOH) information on testing activities, including the date the testing was completed, the location and type of each drinking water outlet tested, the results of each test, and any measures being taken to remediate a drinking water outlet found to have an elevated lead level. Copies of this information would need to be placed in a suitable location and on internet websites. Notification needs to be given to parents, teachers and employee organizations of the availability of the information. A designated contact person would also be required to handle all communications with the DEP and the public.

The bill would require the DEP, within 30 days after the effective date of the bill, to provide the EPA’s technical guidance for reducing lead in drinking water at schools, a summary of the sampling and testing methods contained in the technical guidance, a list of each laboratory in the state certified to conduct lead testing, and any other information the DEP deems relevant.

NJSBA supported the bill in the Assembly Appropriations committee with concerns. The concern is that even though there is a process for reimbursement for the testing of water through the departments of health and education, there is no reimbursement for any type of remediation. Whether it is to provide an alternative water supply or replace fixtures in a facility, there would be no additional funding given to schools. An email was sent to all state legislators before the voting sessions on Monday, alerting them that additional funding was needed in order to keep this from becoming an unfunded mandate.

Text of the NJSBA email is below:

The concern is that while we fully support the intent of the bill – to ensure the safety of children and staff in public school facilities pertaining to elevated levels of lead, and the testing process of lead offers a reimbursement to school districts through the NJ Department of Education – our concern is that the remediation process in this legislation does not offer any type of reimbursement.

Remediation may include taking appropriate measures to ensure that students are not exposed to water with an elevated lead level and making sure they have access to free, fresh and clean drinking water. It may also include measures such as permanently shutting or closing off access to the drinking water outlet, providing an alternative source of water, installing and maintaining a filter and replacing outlets, plumbing or service lines contributing to the elevated lead level.

The process of remediation could be quite costly for school districts and without any funding this could cause an unfunded mandate. We ask that as this legislation moves forward, that it contains a funding source such as S2022 (Introduced April 18, 2016, sponsored by Sen. Stephen M. Sweeney; Senator M. Teresa Ruiz and Senator Ronald L. Rice. The bill would appropriate up to $20 million from the state’s “Clean Energy Fund” to the NJDOE to reimburse schools for costs incurred for the installation of water filters or water treatment devices. The NJDOE, in consultation with the NJDEP, would develop guidelines to prioritize the disbursement of funds, and would provide reimbursement upon receipt of appropriate documentation of the installation.)

School districts have been very proactive with their testing processes and offering fresh water alternatives to students if necessary. This legislation would add additional pressure to them as a mandate.

The bill passed in the full General Assembly.

A-3411/S-1830 would amend existing statutes related to childhood lead poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) previously recommended that responsive action be taken to address childhood lead poisoning in those cases where a lead screening test showed elevated blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or more – designated as a blood lead “level of concern.” In late 2010, however, the CDC’s Advisory Committee for Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention  formed a working group to evaluate new approaches and strategies for defining elevated blood lead levels among children, and to recommend how best to replace the term “level of concern” in response to the accumulation of scientific evidence showing the adverse effects of blood lead levels that are less than 10 micrograms per deciliter. NJSBA supported this bill.

In its final report, issued in 2012, the working group concluded, based on existing scientific evidence, that the term “level of concern” should be eliminated from all future CDC policies, guidance documents, and other publications, and that the recommendations as to elevated blood lead levels, which were based on that “level of concern,” should be updated to reflect current data showing that there is no safe blood lead level in children. In particular, the working group recommended that the CDC adopt a lower benchmark for responsive action – an elevated blood lead level of only five micrograms per deciliter – which is based on the 97.5th percentile of children. The working group also recommended that the CDC take action, every four years, to update this recommended action level, as appropriate, based on the most recent data available.

The bill would revise the current law pertaining to childhood lead poisoning, in order to reflect the current position of the CDC on elevated blood lead levels and require the NJDOH to make its regulations consistent with that position. The bill would define the term “elevated blood lead level” to mean a level of lead in the bloodstream that equals or exceeds five micrograms per deciliter or other such amount as may be identified in the most recent CDC recommendations, and that necessitates the undertaking of responsive action.

The bill would expressly require the NJDOH rules and regulations regarding elevated blood lead levels to be consistent with the CDC’s recommendations, and it would further require the NJDOH, within 30 days after the bill’s date of enactment, and on at least a biennial basis thereafter, to review and revise these rules and regulations, in order to ensure that they comport with the latest CDC guidance on this issue.

The bill would further specify that the department’s public information campaign on lead screening is to: (1) highlight the importance of lead screening, and encourage parents, especially those who have not yet complied with the screening provisions of this act, to have their children screened for lead poisoning at regular intervals, in accordance with the age-based timeframes established by department regulation; and (2) provide for the widespread dissemination of information to parents and health care providers on the dangers of lead poisoning, the factors that contribute to lead poisoning, the recommended ages at which children should be tested for lead poisoning, and the elevated blood lead levels that will necessitate responsive action under this act. If the NJDOH changes the elevated blood lead levels that are required for responsive action, as may be necessary to conform its regulations to federal guidance, the information disseminated through the public information campaign would need to be revised and reissued within 30 days thereafter. This bill passed in both houses and was sent to the governor.

Legislation Pertaining to School Bus Drivers A-3946/S-2364 establishes a “Commercial Driver License Testing Pilot Program” to provide for CDL testing by private third-party vendors, and requires the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) to authorize third-party administration of commercial testing on a more permanent basis based on an evaluation of the program. The bill aims to reduce the backlog of people seeking to obtain a commercial driver license (CDL), which all NJ school bus drivers must possess. More stringent federal CDL regulations that went into effect in 2015 have increased the amount of time it takes for a person to obtain a CDL, which has resulted in some school districts and school bus contractors having a difficult time filling vacant positions.

Under the program, the MVC is required to appoint three private third-party vendors to administer the knowledge and skills tests for CDLs and related endorsements. Of the three selected, one each is to be located in the northern, central, and southern regions of the state. Within nine months of enactment, the MVC Chief Administrator would be required to submit to the governor and the Legislature an evaluation of the program with recommendations that will facilitate the permanent use of third party vendors.

Current law already permits, but does not require, the MVC to use third parties for CDL testing purposes. If enacted, this legislation would essentially compel the MVC to make use of that authority. According to the sponsor, New Jersey would become the 40th state in the U.S. to implement third-party CDL testing. As the legislation could help to increase the pool of qualified school bus drivers across the state without compromising safety, NJSBA supports the bill. This legislation passed in both houses and was sent to the governor.

Professional Development A-2786/S-1474 provides that the State Board of Education must require that the preparation program for an instructional certificate include a minimum of 6 semester credit hours of classroom instruction or clinical experience in special education. The bill also requires the preparation program for an instructional certificate for a teacher of students with disabilities endorsement include credit hours in autism spectrum disorder, to address the educational needs of students with autism. NJSBA supports the legislation, which passed the full Senate in October. This legislation passed in both houses and was sent to the gGovernor.

Dual Enrollment Study Commission S-2624 establishes a “Dual Enrollment Study Commission” for the purpose of developing a statewide framework for use in the future implementation of an expanded dual-enrollment program. Through the program, all college-ready high school students will be eligible to enroll in up to 15 college credits at a partnering institution of higher education while still enrolled in high school. The commission will study a myriad of issues related to the implementation of an expanded dual enrollment program such as program and tuition costs, transportation services, and course rigor.

The study commission will consist of 11 members, including the secretary of higher education, the commissioner of education, and the chair of the college affordability study commission. The remaining eight members would be appointees from various organizations representing both the K-12 and higher education communities. The NJSBA would have a representative on the commission. Upon the completion of its work, the commission will issue a framework to assist in the implementation of an expanded statewide dual-enrollment program.  According to the bill sponsor, any cost estimates and guidelines issued by the commission are intended to ensure that it is not a state mandate.

As introduced, S-2624 would have required every NJ school district to enter into a dual enrollment agreement. During deliberations before the Senate Higher Education Committee in October, the NJSBA and other stakeholders from the K-12 community expressed concerns that the bill would impose an unfunded mandate on many public school districts. Instead, the stakeholders encouraged the sponsors to convene a study commission that would conduct a comprehensive analysis of dual enrollment programs to study not only the benefits but also the challenges and obstacles districts encounter in implementing such programs. The NJSBA supports the revised measure, which was adopted and passed by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last Thursday, Dec. 15, before receiving unanimous approval of the full Senate earlier this week.

Drug Prevention Legislation A-2422 directs the commissioner of education to work with the national nonprofit organization, Natural High, to encourage the implementation of the “Natural High Drug Prevention Program” in each school district. The program will include use of Natural High videos and research-based curricula, training for educators on the Natural High program, program assessments, support to activate Natural High clubs at middle schools and high schools, and participation of a New Jersey educator on the Natural High Leadership Council to provide New Jersey-specific input on the program. Among other features, the curriculum for the Natural High Drug Prevention Program includes information on identifying and engaging in positive activities or passions, referred to as “natural highs.” The bill’s upper house counterpart, S-1010, passed the Senate Education Committee, but has not yet received a floor vote. NJSBA supports the legislation. The bill later passed in the General Assembly.

Other Committee Activity The following bills were released by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday, Dec. 15, and are primed for a floor vote:

A-4087 establishes the “New Jersey College Ready Students Program Act.” Under the bill, the commissioner of education, in consultation with the Secretary of Higher Education, is directed to establish a program to provide for the tuition-free enrollment of certain public high school students who enroll in dual enrollment courses at a local county college.

In determining eligibility for the tuition benefit provided pursuant to the bill, the criteria will be the same as the eligibility standards needed to qualify for financial assistance from the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund. A student may receive up to 3 credits tuition-free per semester, and no more than 6 credits tuition-free in a school year in each of the 11th and 12th grades. Under the bill, the state will bear the cost of tuition for students who participate in the program. NJSBA supports the bill.

A-3799 broadens existing law to provide that students participating in intramural sports programs will be included in the student-athlete head injury safety program, and that the coaches of intramural sports programs must complete a safety training program. Pursuant to current law, the N.J. Department of Education developed a head injury safety training program on the recognition of the symptoms of head injuries and the appropriate amount of time to delay the return to competition of a student who suffers a head injury.  Currently, the program must be completed by school physicians, coaches, and athletic trainers involved in interscholastic sports programs and cheerleading programs, but not intramural coaches. NJSBA supports the measure.

Legal Notice Legislation Earlier in December, committees from both houses of the Legislature advanced bills that would allow school boards and other local governing bodies to electronically post various legal notices that must currently be published in newspapers. S-2855/A-4429 referred to as the “Electronic Publication of Legal Notices Act,” would permit the publication of legal notices by government agencies instead of newspapers. More specifically, the bill explicitly permits the electronic publication of legal notices in every instance in which current law requires newspaper publication. This option would be available with respect to a government agency if the government agency has, for a three month period beginning on or after the enactment date, published all legal notices both on its official website and in newspapers and provided notice both on its official website and in newspapers that the government agency may exclusively publish legal notices electronically going forward. A government agency that meets these requirements and elects to exclusively publish legal notices electronically would also have to create a notice website on which the required legal notices would be electronically published. A notice website created under the bill would have to be an index webpage containing a list of all current legal notices relating to the government agency, with links to the full text of those notices, not just summaries of the notices. Such government agency would further have to designate officials to be responsible for these electronic publications, and to serve as contact persons who handle the intake and processing of electronic publication requests made by persons. The government agency would also be required to receive and review any complaints with respect to electronically published legal notices, which complaints would have to be made available for public inspection.   The Senate and Assembly versions were released from their respective committees. NJSBA supports this permissive bill as it may lead to cost savings for local districts.

Both bills were scheduled for final votes on Monday, but were pulled from consideration. On Monday evening, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto released a statement indicating that discussions on the bill would continue.