On Monday, Jan. 10, the State Senate and General Assembly held their final voting sessions of the 2020-2021 legislative sessions and sent dozens of bills to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, including several that affect New Jersey’s public schools.  In addition, the governor acted on a host of bills that were sent to his desk in December. This article provides a summary of the most noteworthy legislative activity affecting boards of educations over the past week.

Governor Signs Bills, Vetoes Others

The following measures were approved by the Legislature more than 10 days before the end of the session. Therefore, the governor had to affirmatively act on them by signing them into law, returning them to the Legislature via conditional veto, or issue an absolute veto.

These three bills, as passed by the Legislature, were signed into law Monday, Jan. 10:

School Security Drills  A-5727/S-3726 aims to ensure students’ well-being during school security drills by dictating certain measures that must be taken in advance of, during, or after conducting such a drill. According to the bill’s Senate sponsor, the legislation would ensure that lockdown drills take into consideration the impact these drills can have on the mental health of students, while continuing the safety preparations for students should an intruder appear at a school. This bill requires that a school district must ensure that a school security drill that occurs when students are present follow the following guidelines:

  • Includes clear messaging to students and staff at the conclusion of the drill that the event is a drill and that no current danger exists.
  • Does not expose students to content or imaging that is not developmentally or age appropriate.
  • Is paired with trauma-informed approaches to address any student inquiries or concerns that may arise as a result of a school security drill.
  • Does not include the use of fake blood, real or prop firearms, or the simulations of gunshots, explosions, or other sounds or visuals that may induce panic or a traumatic response from a student or employee.
  • Does not require a student to role-play as a victim, but it may include first aid training in which students participate.
  • Is accessible to students with disabilities and mental health conditions and provides all necessary accommodations for these students.

The bill requires districts to notify parents, by the end of the school day, whenever a security drill is conducted. It also requires school districts to review and update their drill procedures using a process that coincides with the review of its school safety and security plan. During that process, input from emergency personnel, parents and guardians of students enrolled in the district, teachers and staff employed in the district, mental health professionals, and student government representatives would be collected.

Anti-Bullying Law Revisions  S-1790/A-1662 makes various changes to the state’s anti-bullying law and improves harassment, intimidation and bullying reporting and investigation by:

  • Placing a renewed emphasis on a supportive school climate and culture as a means to combat HIB.
  • Creating the funded position of school climate state coordinator in the New Jersey Department of Education to serve as a “one–stop shop” for HIB information and resources for parents, students and school staff.  The office will also coordinate and collaborate with law enforcement and other agencies on anti-harassment, intimidation and bullying efforts.
  • Preserving the board’s role in harassment, intimidation and bullying oversight and parental appeals.
  • Requiring funding for the “bullying prevention fund.” The fund shall be used to offer grants to school districts to provide training on harassment, intimidation and bullying prevention and on the effective creation of positive school climates, and to help fund related personnel expenses.

Mental Health Data Reporting  A-4838/S-2811 requires the annual school report card submitted by a school district to include the following information for each school within the district: (1) the number of mental health professionals, including school psychologists, school counselors, social workers, student assistance coordinators, and other mental health professionals, and the ratio of students to the total number of mental health professionals; and (2) the number of school safety specialists. The law applies to the first full school year following enactment.

The following two bills were conditionally vetoed by the governor and returned to the Legislature with recommended changes. The Legislature concurred with the governor’s recommendations and the bills can now be signed into law.

Addressing CTE Teacher Shortage S-4074/A-6000 eliminates the requirement to pass a basic skills test to become a career and technical education teacher. As an alternative, a prospective CTE teaching candidate can demonstrate basic skills proficiency in a manner to be determined by the NJDOE. The bill is intended to alleviate the shortage of career and technical education teachers in the state’s public schools. As passed by the Legislature, the bill would have gone into effect immediately once signed by the governor. In order to give the NJDOE sufficient time to identify appropriate alternate measures to demonstrate candidate proficiency, the governor recommended revisions to make the bill effective beginning with the first full school year following enactment. The governor’s conditional veto statement on S-4074/S-6000 can be found here.

Wellness Grant Program  A-4434/S-2716 directs the state commissioner of education, in consultation with the Department of Children and Families, to establish a student wellness grant program.  The purpose of the program will be to provide grants that support school districts in implementing school-based programs and practices that promote mental wellness, social and emotional learning and student resilience. The governor conditionally vetoed the bill to revise the funding language to provide the NJDOE with flexibility to fund the grant program alongside other priorities. In addition, he recommended allowing for a pause of the grant program in the face of insufficient available funding. The governor’s conditional veto statement on A-4434/S-2716 can be found here.

The following bill received an absolute veto by the governor:

Regional Reapportionment  A-2300/S-3129 requires the apportionment of membership on certain regional district boards of education to be based on the amount of district costs apportioned to each constituent municipality. This bill concerns the membership of the board of education of a regional school district in which a reapportionment of costs among the constituent municipalities has been determined by the New Jersey commissioner of education, not the voters of the district.  Under these circumstances, the regional district will apportion the membership of its board of education based on how the costs of the regional district are shared among the constituent municipalities, except that each constituent municipality would have at least one member on the board.

The governor’s statement explaining his rationale for vetoing the legislation can be found here.

Bills On the Governor’s Desk

The following bills received final legislative approval on Monday, Jan. 10. As they were passed less than 10 days before the end of the two-year legislative session, per the State Constitution, the governor has only two options: He can sign them into law as is or allow them to expire without acting. This latter action is known as a pocket veto. Since the legislative session has ended, he cannot return them to the Legislature via conditional or absolute veto. He has until Jan. 18 to act on the following education measures:

Hiring Retired Staff  S-3685/A-5576 permits a retired teacher and professional staff member who provides special services to return to employment for up to two years without reenrollment in the pension system. The bill would apply to retirees hired during the current and 2022-2023 school years. Examples of the types of staff members covered by the bill include speech language specialists or therapists. Current law has a substantially similar provision to permit retirees to return to work with a board of education in a pensioned position as a certificated superintendent or administrator for a limited period of time and without reenrolling in the pension system. A recently enacted state law permits the employment of retired school nurses on an interim basis during the current state of emergency.  Longstanding NJSBA policy holds to the belief that school districts should have the flexibility to secure qualified staff for vacancies, including the hiring of retirees, particularly when attempting to fill positions of critical need. Therefore, NJSBA supports the measure.

Asian American Heritage S-3764/A-3369 establishes a commission on Asian Heritage in the NJDOE. The purpose of the commission would be to survey, design, encourage and promote the implementation of historical, cultural and educational programs concerning people of Asian and Asian American descent in New Jersey. NJSBA supports the bill.

BOE Student Representative  A-3392/S-1219 requires that at least one student representative be appointed to each board of education of a school district and board of trustees of any charter school that includes grades nine through 12. The student is to be selected by the student body. In the event that there is more than one high school in the district, the position will rotate among the high schools. The representative shall attend all meetings, present to the board on matters of student concern and provide a monthly report to the student body. The student representative would have no vote and will not be permitted in closed session. NJSBA supports the bill.

Enrolling Students of Military Families A-5694/S-3783 permits dependents of a military member to enroll in a school district in advance of the military member’s relocation to the district. The NJSBA supports this bill and successfully lobbied for an amendment to clarify that military families should present a copy of their relocation orders to the district prior to their enrollment in the district.

Reporting Discipline Data A-1184/A-4414/S-1020 requires the School Report Card to include a demographic breakdown of students who receive disciplinary actions and requires the commissioner of education to establish a statewide database concerning various disciplinary actions. This bill would require that there be a demographic breakdown by race, gender, disability and grade level of the students who receive discipline, as well as the types of discipline imposed.

Evaluating Teacher Prep Programs S-2830/A-5291 requires each educator preparation program to annually report to the NJDOE on the first-time and overall test pass rates of candidates for an instructional certificate, for each test required for instructional certification. The bill also requires the department to annually compile the test pass rates of candidates for an instructional certificate into a comparative profile of all educator preparation programs. The pass rates will be included within the documentation required for the commissioner of education’s periodic review of educator preparation programs.

AAPI Instruction S-4021/A-6100 requires school districts to provide instruction on the history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of the implementation of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in social studies.  The bill would also require a board of education to have policies and procedures in place pertaining to the selection of instructional materials that comply with the provisions of this bill. In adopting materials for use in the school district, a board of education would be required to adopt inclusive instructional materials that portray the cultural and economic diversity of the AAPI community. If enacted, the bill would first apply to the 2022-2023 school year.

Legislative Youth Council S-3164/A-4987 creates the New Jersey Legislative Youth Council.  The purpose of the council is to provide a forum for New Jersey’s youth to participate in the democratic process; to advise the Legislature on the perspectives, opinions, needs, development and welfare of the youth of the state; and on the most effective and efficient policies, programs and services that the state could provide for the youth.  The council would also research, analyze, discuss and make specific recommendations in the areas of civics education; drugs and substance abuse; emotional and physical health; employment and economic opportunities; environmental protection; gun violence and school safety; homelessness and poverty; mental health; safe environment for youth; sexual harassment and violence; youth services; and youth bias and hate crimes. The council would be comprised of 44 members – 40 members of the public between the ages of 15 and 23 representing each of the state’s legislative districts, and four members of the New Jersey Legislature. For each legislative session, the council will submit to the Legislature a series of policy recommendations.

Teacher Workforce Data S-2835/A-5292 requires compilation of data and the issuance of annual reports on the New Jersey teacher workforce. Specifically, the bill would establish the following reporting requirements concerning the current and projected teacher workforce in the state:

  • School districts will annually submit to the New Jersey commissioner of education information for the current school year on teaching positions (e.g., vacant positions, the number of new teaching positions, the number of positions that were eliminated and anticipated teacher retirements).
  • School districts will also annually submit to the commissioner information on public school teacher retention, including the number of and reasons why teachers left employment with the district during the prior school year. The information would show the characteristics of the teachers who left the district, including age, sex, race and tenure status.
  • The Executive Leadership Council of the New Jersey Education to Earnings Data System will issue a report on teacher workforce projections for the state for the following two years. After the issuance of this initial report, the council will issue an annual report on teacher workforce projections for the subsequent three to five years.
  • The Executive Leadership Council of the New Jersey Education to Earnings Data System will semiannually report to the Legislature on the progress of the annual teacher workforce projection report.

NJSBA supports the legislation.

District Website Accessibility A-4856/S-3094 requires the websites and web services of school districts, charter schools and renaissance schools to be accessible to persons with disabilities by establishing certain accessibility standards. Specifically, the bill requires that no public school will make available to the enrolled students of the district or school or to the public a website or web service unless the website or web service complies with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 Level AA or the most up-to-date version of the guidelines if approved by the commissioner of education, or any other applicable guidelines or requirements as may be designated or approved by the commissioner.  The WCAG guidelines provide standards through which digital content may be accessible for persons with disabilities.  In June 2018, the WCAG 2.1 guidelines were issued to improve accessibility guidance for three major groups: users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision and users with disabilities on mobile devices.  NJSBA supports the intent of the bill but has urged the Legislature and administration to provide funding for this mandate and will continues to advocate for an appropriation to offset districts’ implementation costs.

AAPI Instruction S-4021/A-6100 requires school districts to provide instruction on the history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of the implementation of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in social studies.  The bill would also require a board of education to have policies and procedures in place pertaining to the selection of instructional materials that comply with the provisions of this bill. In adopting materials for use in the school district, a board of education would be required to adopt inclusive instructional materials that portray the cultural and economic diversity of the AAPI community. If enacted, the bill would first apply to the 2022-2023 school year.

School Bus Safety Ombudsman A-5814/S-3851 creates the school bus safety ombudsman position in the New Jersey Department of Education to monitor and administer all school bus safety and oversight activities. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Responsible Collective Negotiations Act  S-3810/A-5826 concerns the settlement of labor disputes among public employers and employees. In general, the bill only applies to the state and unions representing state employees and does not affect public school districts. However, the bill contains a couple of amendments to the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act and a 2018 law known as the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act, both of which apply to boards of education. Specifically, the bill:

  • Requires that every 120 calendar days, public employers provide to the union the following information for each employee not represented by the union: name, job title, worksite location, work email and work phone number, and, within 30 days of a request by the union, a job description for each non-represented employee, including the names and job titles of all employees supervised by the employer.
  • Provides that employees who authorized a payroll deduction of union fees prior to the effective date of the WDEA may revoke the authorization by providing written notice to their employer, consistent with the terms of the authorization as consistent with the law at time the authorization was given.
  • Provides that employees who have authorized the payroll deduction of fees to employee organizations on or after the effective date of the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act may revoke such authorization by providing written notice to their employer at any time. Under existing law, an employee may only revoke such authorization by providing written notice to an employer during the 10 days following each anniversary date of their employment.

Bills Returned to Governor

Both houses of the Legislature have now concurred with the governor’s conditional veto recommendations on the following bills. The governor is expected to promptly sign them into law.

Regionalization S-3488/A-5537 modifies various procedures pertaining to school district regionalization. The bill also establishes a grant program for conducting regionalization feasibility studies in this voluntary program, as well as other financial incentives for districts to explore regionalization, particularly those that are losing state aid because of declining enrollment. Specifically, districts facing adjustment aid cuts would see those cuts phased in over eight years — stretched out from the current four years — if the districts involved choose to start a regionalization plan. An additional incentive provides that, through 2028-2029, newly established K-12 regional districts would receive the greater of the state aid to which the newly established district would be entitled, or the sum of the aid of what would have been provided to the constituent districts prior to the creation of the new regional district. In addition to the financial incentives, the bill establishes various flexibilities regarding implementation of a regionalization plan that are intended to make the process easier. Importantly, the bill maintains voter approval over any final decision to regionalize – a key NJSBA priority.

Teacher Loan Redemption S-969/A-2687 establishes a loan redemption program in the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority to allow teachers to redeem a portion of their New Jersey College Loans to Assist State Students  loan amounts for service as a teacher in a high-need field in a “low-performing school.” The governor conditionally vetoed the bill to include a $1 million appropriation to fund the program. He also recommended revisions to permit forgiveness of 25% of the principal and interest of the loan amount in return for each consecutive year of service, for up to a four-year period and a maximum redemption of $20,000.

New Special Education Unit S-2160/A-5701 would create a special education unit within the Office of Administrative Law and require an annual report. The special education unit would consist of administrative law judges having expertise in special education law. Under the bill, all contested cases concerning special education law that are referred to the OAL would be assigned to and adjudicated by the administrative law judges in the special education unit.