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On Monday, Feb. 6, Gov. Chris Christie signed 14 bills that were sent to his desk at the end of 2016. The following three impact New Jersey’s public school districts. NJSBA supported each of them.

Bus Driver Testing Pilot Program S-2364/A-3946 (P.L.2017, c.10) establishes a “Commercial Driver License Testing Pilot Program” to provide for commercial driver license (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 law aims to reduce the backlog of people seeking to obtain a commercial driver license, which all New Jersey school bus drivers must possess. More stringent federal 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. The legislation could help to increase the pool of qualified school bus drivers across the state without compromising safety.

New Lead-Screening Standards  S-1830/A-3411 (P.L.2017, c.7) amends the state statutes related to childhood lead poisoning to require that the N.J. Department of Health (NJDOH) regulations regarding testing for, and responses to, elevated blood lead levels in children be consistent with the most recent recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2012, the CDC revised its benchmark for when elevated blood lead levels in children should trigger responsive action, lowering the action level from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to five micrograms per deciliter. This new law requires the NJDOH to revise its regulations to make them consistent with the current CDC benchmark, and further requires NJDOH, within 30 days after the law’s enactment and on at least a biennial basis thereafter, to review and revise its rules and regulations to ensure that they comport with the latest CDC guidance.

The law requires the NJDOH to promulgate regulations concerning the responsive action to be taken when a child’s blood lead level tests above the CDC benchmark, including performing environmental follow-up, providing notice to the child’s family, performing additional screening of family members, providing case management services, and providing medical treatment, such as chelation therapy.

The law further specifies that the current NJDOH public information campaign on lead screening is to: (1) highlight the importance of lead screening and encourage parents to have their children screened for lead poisoning at regular intervals, consistent with the age-based timeframes established by NJDOH; 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 it, the recommended ages at which children should be tested for lead poisoning, and the elevated blood lead levels that will necessitate responsive action. The law additionally requires that the NJDOH revise and reissue the information disseminated through the public information campaign within 30 days of making revisions to its blood lead regulations to remain consistent with current federal recommendations.

Special Education Prep Now Required  S-1474/A-2786 (P.L.2017, c.6) 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 new law 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.

Senate Committee Moves Bills on Lead, Absenteeism, Salary Caps and More

The Senate Education Committee also met on Feb. 6 and advanced the following measures:

Lead Testing Funding A-4284/S-2675 concerns reimbursement for expenses related to lead testing of water. Previously, the state had made $10 million available for such reimbursement, but only for testing done after the date the money was made available (July 13, 2016). This bill allows for retroactive reimbursement back to Jan. 1, 2016. A-4284 already passed the General Assembly unanimously. If passed by the full Senate, the bill will return to the General Assembly to concur with amendments made by the Senate Education Committee that apply its provisions to nonpublic schools. NJSBA supports this legislation.

Chronic Absenteeism S-447requires the commissioner of education to include data on chronic absenteeism and disciplinary suspensions on the School Report Card and requires public schools to make certain efforts to combat chronic absenteeism. NJSBA expressed concerns over the definition of chronic absenteeism in the original version of the bill. As a result, the committee amended the bill providing that the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) will determine the definition of chronic absenteeism through regulation instead. The bill now goes to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Superintendent Salary Caps S-504 would prohibit the NJDOE from regulating the maximum salary amount a board of education could provide to a superintendent of schools pursuant to the employment contract. The superintendent salary cap went into effect in February 2011 and is currently in the process of being renewed, with some modifications, by the commissioner of education. According to data collected by NJSBA in February 2014, the cap has been a major factor in superintendent turnover and has resulted in a decrease in experience levels of superintendent candidates. When the restriction was first proposed, NJSBA opposed the cap, terming it an unnecessary “cap within caps” as several controls are in place to ensure accountability and fiscal prudence in administrative spending. These controls include the 2 percent tax-levy cap; statutory limits on the annual growth of school district administrative expenditures; and oversight and review of school administrator contracts and compensation by the NJDOE. NJSBA strongly supports the bill. In testimony before the committee, NJSBA staff said the salary limit is a misguided and ill-conceived public policy and should be eliminated, adding, “It’s time that we return control over personnel decisions back to where it belongs, and that’s in the hands of duly elected local school board members.” The bill now goes to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Textbooks for Every Student S-2138 requires a board of education to provide an individual textbook for each student enrolled in a class. “Textbook” means books, workbooks or manuals, whether bound or in looseleaf form, or electronic textbooks, intended as the principal source of study material for a given class. The bill is now primed for a Senate floor vote.

Computer Science Endorsement S-2397 directs the State Board of Education to authorize a computer science education endorsement to the instructional certificate. The endorsement would authorize the holder to teach computer science in all public schools, and would be required to teach computer science in grades 7 through 12 beginning at such time as the State Board determines that there are a sufficient number of teachers holding the computer science education endorsement to make the requirement feasible. The standards established by the State Board would require a candidate for the computer science education endorsement to complete computer science related coursework requirements determined by the State Board. The bill also includes a “grandfather clause” that would allow for the issuance of the endorsement to teachers who have taught computer science within the three years prior to the State Board making the endorsement a requirement to teach computer science. NJSBA is monitoring the bill.

School Bus Aides S-2757 requires a minimum of one school bus aide for every 15 special needs students on a school bus. NJSBA opposed this bill because it mandates the aides without providing funding for the initiative. NJSBA urged the legislators to designate a source of funds to support the important safety goals of the bill. The bill has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration of its financial impact before it can be posted for a floor vote.

Recovery School Admissions  S-2950 requires sending districts to enter into an agreement with the school district that has established the recovery high school if a student from the sending district seeks admittance into the recovery high school and the placement is considered clinically appropriate by a certified alcohol and drug counselor or a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor. The bill eliminates the input of district boards of education and superintendents in these situations. NJSBA opposed the bill on the grounds that it creates a new state mandate for districts requiring added tuition and transportation costs but contains no state appropriation to address these expenses. The bill was released 4-1 with the expectation that the sponsor will consider adding a provision requiring at least partial state funding before the bill moves forward.

Schools as Immigrant Safe Zones  SCR-134, a nonbinding resolution, (also passed full Senate same day) expresses the Legislature’s intent that school districts and public institutions of higher education continue to serve as safe zones and resource centers for students and families threatened by immigration or discrimination to the fullest extent provided by the law. The resolution further expresses the intent that those same institutions continue to protect the data and identities of any undocumented student, family member, or school employee who may be adversely affected by future policies or executive action that results in the collection of any personally identifiable information to the fullest extent provided by the law. After being advanced by the committee, the resolution was approved by the full Senate.

Hearings on School Funding Continue

The two legislative committees tasked with reviewing and recommending changes to New Jersey’s system for funding public education will continue to hold public hearings over the next several weeks. The list of upcoming meetings follows below. Persons wishing to testify should register with the Office of Legislative Services at (609) 847-3850 and should submit 15 copies of written testimony on the day of the hearing. Oral testimony will be limited to three minutes. Persons who are not presenting oral testimony may submit 15 copies of written testimony for consideration by the committee and inclusion in the record.

Senate Select Committee on School Funding Fairness

On Feb. 8, the hearing previously scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 9 at 11 a.m. in Paul Robeson Campus Center, Essex East, Room 232, Rutgers University, 350 Dr. Martin Luther King Boulevard, Newark, New Jersey 07102 was postponed, due to the forecast for bad weather on Feb. 9. School Board Notes will carry a notice when the meeting is rescheduled.

Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 11 a.m. in Cliffside Park Municipal Complex, 525 Palisade Avenue, Cliffside Park, New Jersey 07010.

The Assembly Education Committee has held three hearings on school funding to date. The first was held in the State House, the second in Hackensack, and the third took place in Sicklerville. The committee is expected to hold one more hearing in the central region of the state, but the date and location have yet to be announced.