Since the last edition of School Board Notes on June 29, Gov. Murphy signed into law a handful of bills affecting local school districts. A summary of each one follows below, along with several others that were sent to the governor’s desk just before the Legislature recessed for the summer.

Grade Repetition A-5365/S-3872 (P.L. 2021, c. 141)  This bill, signed into law on June 30, permits parents or guardians to ask that their child be allowed to repeat a grade during the 2021-2022 school year. The new law affects students in kindergarten through the eighth grade. Parents can submit a written request to the principal, asking to have their child held back.

The request must be evaluated by the school counselor, IEP team or child study team, and the student’s teachers, to determine whether holding the child back a year will meet the academic and social-emotional needs of the student.

The parent who submits a written request of grade repetition would consult with school personnel to review and evaluate whether grade retention is necessary. The results of this consultation would be submitted to the principal of the school. The parent may request a separate conference with the school principal to discuss the results of the consultation.

If, after consultation, it is determined that grade retention is necessary, the school principal is required to grant the request of grade repetition.  If there is not a consensus as to whether grade retention is necessary, the superintendent of the school district would review the results of the consultation and make a final determination to grant or deny the written request.

The bill also permits a school district superintendent or a lead person of a charter school or renaissance school project to accept a written request of grade retention after June 30, 2021. A superintendent or lead person who chooses to accept a written request of grade retention after June 30, 2021 may grant the request in accordance with the same procedures required for written requests submitted prior to June 30. NJSBA supported this bill, as it gives district superintendents final say over any decisions to have a student repeat a grade.

Chapter 44 Amendments A-5825/S-3487 (P.L. 2021, c. 163) would make a series of adjustments to the 2020 law commonly known as “Chapter 44,” that made significant changes to school employees’ health benefits coverage and payment obligations.

The bill, which went into effect immediately upon the governor’s signature, includes the following provisions:

  • Requires boards of education and their unions to engage in negotiations to “substantially mitigate” any financial losses resulting from the implementation of Chapter 44. Under the bill, substantial mitigation may include changes to plan level offerings or contributions for the N.J. Educators Health Plan (NJEHP), or to both plan level offerings and contributions, which is not currently permissible under Chapter 44.
  • Directs any school district with an increase in net cost as a result of Chapter 44 to commence negotiations immediately unless both the board and union agree to substantially mitigate the financial impact to the employer as part of the next collective negotiations agreement. The bill explicitly provides that such negotiations may include salary increases, step guides, or other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Changes the effective date of the new Garden State Health Plan (GSHP), as established by Chapter 44, from July 1, 2021 to Jan. 1, 2022.
  • Permits charter school and renaissance school employers to not implement Chapter 44 unless they have a collective negotiation agreement with any of their employees in place on or after the law’s effective date.
  • Clarifies that the provisions concerning mandatory enrollment in the NJEHP do not apply to any employee who was hired before the effective date of Chapter 44 but did not enroll or was not eligible to enroll at that time.
  • Provides that for any period of time during which the school district, as an employer, does not have to pay a premium for a health benefits plan, an employee enrolled in such plan will not be required to make a contribution toward that premium unless a collective bargaining agreement dictates otherwise.

Regarding the bill’s provision that will require boards and unions to engage in negotiations to mitigate the impact of any financial losses incurred by the district, the NJSBA views this as a positive, though small, step in the right direction. Most significantly, it makes it clear that boards and their unions will be able to collectively bargain changes to the design of their health care plans (including the NJEHP), employee contribution levels, or both. As it currently stands, Chapter 44 leaves no room for negotiations over the issues and does not return them to the bargaining table until 2028. While negotiating changes to health benefits is rarely a simple task, the amendments to Chapter 44 compel labor and management to come to the bargaining table to explore ways to mitigate any losses and allows them to consider all terms and conditions of employment when doing so.

However, while a slight improvement compared to the original law, the NJSBA argued that the bill does not go far enough toward alleviating the pain some districts have experienced since Chapter 44 went into effect. As the bill made its way through the legislative process, the NJSBA urged the Legislature to use A-5825/S-3487 as a vehicle to reverse the unintended consequences of Chapter 44. In the short-term, the NJSBA argued that the Legislature should appropriate funding to offset the financial losses districts have already realized post-Chapter 44 and ensure each district is at least held harmless. Unfortunately, that recommendation was not included in the bill. To read a copy of the NJSBA’s position statement on the bill, click here.

Securing Our Children’s Future Grants The following measures appropriate funding for various capital projects authorized under the “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act.” That act, which received voter approval during the November 2018 general election, authorized the state to borrow up to $500 million to fund school district and county college capital projects. These measures will provide resources to school districts for school security projects, water infrastructure improvement and career and technical education expansion projects. Each bill specifies the dollar amount that each district that applied for the grants will receive. These measures appropriate funding for the first round of grants, which total over $317 million when combined with other grants supporting improvements at the state’s county colleges.  Details and applications for the second round of grants will be announced at a later date.

  • A-5886/S-3959 (P.L. 2021, c. 145) awards project grants for school security projects. The grants will, in part, be used to offset the cost of alarms and silent security systems. These grants will also be used to fund other infrastructure improvements prescribed in state law after districts certify compliance with “Alyssa’s Law,” which requires all public schools to be equipped with a panic alarm for use in a school security emergency. Other school security upgrades include exterior lighting improvements, surveillance cameras, intercoms, remote locking/unlocking doors, shatter-resistant glass, signage improvements, generator installation, and impact-rated vehicle barriers.
  • A-5887/S-3960 (P.L. 2021, c. 146) will provide grants for the construction, reconstruction, repair, rehabilitation, or replacement of water supply infrastructure in K-12 schools. Eligible projects include improvements to drinking water outlets with a detectable level of lead or other contaminants, and whole system remediation.
  • A-5889/S-3962 (P.L. 2021, c. 148) provides project grants for career and technical education (CTE)  expansion in county vocational school districts. Allocated funds for construction projects that support CTE program expansion for County Vocational School Districts (CVSD). These projects will fund renovation and new construction to increase student capacity in select county vocational CTE programs, including related demolition, site improvements and physical plant upgrades, and furniture and equipment in renovated, reassigned, or new spaces related to county vocational CTE program expansion.

Student Surveys A-5597/S-3801 (P.L. 2021, c. 156) permits school districts to administer anonymous, voluntary surveys regarding students’ use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs – among other behaviors that could harm their health and well-being. Parents or guardians will be notified at least two weeks prior to administration of the survey.  Information obtained through the survey would be submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) and New Jersey Department of Health, and will be used to develop public health initiatives and prevention programs. The measure prohibits information from being used for marketing or other commercial purposes unrelated to student health.

The new law takes effect 180 days following the governor’s approval.

Bills on Governor’s Desk

The following received final legislative approval by the Senate during its June 30 voting session and await action by the governor:

Regionalization S-3488/A-5537 The bill establishes a grant program for conducting regionalization feasibility studies in this voluntary regionalization program and provides financial incentives for districts losing state aid because of declining enrollment. Specifically, districts facing Adjustment Aid cuts would have eight years — stretched out from the current four years — if the districts involved choose to start a regionalization plan. 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 the consolidated districts including the eight-year Adjustment Aid phase-out. The bill establishes various additional incentives to explore regionalization and makes statutory changes intended to make the process easier. Because of its voluntary nature, NJSBA supports the bill.

School Bus Safety  S-3852/A-5817 amends current law to hold a board of education or school bus contractor responsible if they approve or assign an individual, as a driver or substitute driver of a school bus, without first complying with the provisions of law concerning the training, certification, and criminal history record checks of school bus drivers. NJSBA is monitoring the bill.

Bus Driver Blacklist  A-5818/S-3849 provides that a list be posted on the NJDOE’s website of people who, because of a variety of illegal acts, are not allowed to bid on pupil transportation contracts. This list would be distributed to each school district and board of education in the state by March 1 of each year. Under the bill, the NJDOE is required to blacklist any person who fails to comply with rules pertaining to the qualification of school bus drivers and school bus inspections. The commission of a criminal offense while attempting to obtain a public or private contract would be grounds for blacklisting. The commission of a criminal offense, including child abuse or sexual misconduct involving a child, would also be grounds to prevent a person from bidding on a pupil transportation contract.  NJSBA supports the bill.

Anti-Hazing Policies S-84/A-3149 expands the definition of hazing to include any conduct that causes, coerces or forces another person to commit an act that violates the law or to consume harmful substances. Any conduct that subjects another person to abuse, mistreatment, harassment or degradation of a physical, mental/emotional or sexual nature would also be considered hazing. Hazing that leads to serious bodily injury or death would be upgraded to a 3rd degree crime whereas hazing that leads to bodily injury would be upgraded to a crime of the 4th degree. Hazing that does not result in injury or death would remain a disorderly persons offense. The upgraded charges would lead to increased penalties for individuals found guilty of those crimes. NJSBA supported the bill as it was consistent with policies on harassment, intimidation and bullying.

Student Journalists’ Rights S-108/A-169 The bill concerns speech rights of student journalists at public schools and public institutions of higher education. The bill provides that a student at a public school or a public institution of higher education who gathers, compiles, writes, edits, photographs, records, or prepares information for dissemination in school-sponsored media has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press, and is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of the school-sponsored media. The bill does not protect student expression that: (1) is libelous or slanderous; (2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; (3) violates federal or state law; or (4) so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of an unlawful act, the violation of policies of the school district or institution, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school or institution. The bill requires school districts to adopt a written policy by the first full school year following the date of enactment of this bill concerning student freedom of expression. The policy must include reasonable provisions for the time, place, and manner of student expression, and may also include limitations on language that may be defined as profane, harassing, threatening, or intimidating. The bill also contains provisions to protect employees of school districts and public institutions of higher education from retaliation for acting to protect a student engaged in freedom of expression.  NJSBA expressed concerns about the bill because there is already clear U.S. Supreme Court guidance on student expression; it may undermine efforts to improve school climates as required by New Jersey’s harassment, intimidation, and bullying law; extends additional protections to one group of students and not to others; and lacks adequate liability protections for district staff  and boards of education.

Redistricting and Apportionment A-698/S-3964 requires incarcerated people from the state to be counted at a residential address for municipal, county, and congressional redistricting purposes and for apportionment of regional school district board of education members. As amended, the bill would require that the adjusted federal census data as reported by the Secretary of State would be the basis for the apportionment of members of the board of education of regional school districts.

School Funding Task Force Legislation Goes to Assembly

The Senate also advanced legislation, S-3617, that would establish a “School Funding Formula Evaluation Task Force.” The task force would consist of the NJDOE Commissioner (or her designee) and six public members. The presiding officers of both legislative houses will appoint two members each with the minority leader of each house appointing one.

The task force would study and provide recommendations on various aspects of the School Funding Reform Act, or SFRA, including, but not limited to:

  • How school district adequacy budgets and local shares are calculated;
  • The current methodology of measuring and weighting at-risk students and students with limited English proficiency;
  • The grade levels and vocational school weights;
  • The current methodology used to calculate the geographic cost adjustment;
  • The use of the census-based funding methodology for determining special education aid and other possible methodologies;
  • Cost thresholds used for extraordinary special education aid reimbursement;
  • Methodologies used to calculate security and transportation aid; and
  • The impact that the reallocation of state school aid under “S-2” has had on school districts’ finances.

The bill now goes to the Assembly for further consideration.