On May 26, both the Senate and the Assembly held their first voting sessions since the Legislature returned from budget break. They approved various measures affecting New Jersey school districts.

Senate

Emergency Bonding Authority S-1892 would create a streamlined process for school districts and certain municipalities to issue bonds to finance repairs to facilities and equipment damaged by natural disasters for which the state has declared a state of emergency. Specifically, Type II school districts without a board of school estimate may issue bonds without voter approval; in the case of Type I school districts and Type II school districts with a board of school estimate, such bonds may be issued by the board of education, or the governing body of the municipality comprised within the district. The bonds may be issued without the approval of the board of school estimate or the adoption of a municipal ordinance as applicable. The bill would authorize boards of education to approve the issuance of these bonds via a resolution that must contain certain information about the project enumerated in the bill. The resolution must be adopted in a public meeting by two-thirds of its full membership.

The district must demonstrate that the repairs are necessary to provide a thorough and efficient education, and that at least a portion of the costs are eligible for reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If the repairs constitute a school facility project eligible for debt service aid pursuant to the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act (N.J.S.A. 18A:7G-1 et seq.), the district must seek approval from the New Jersey Department of Education via an application process established by the commissioner. The bill specifies that the NJDOE must review these applications on an expedited basis, and that, notwithstanding the EFCFA, the commissioner may not deny such an application merely based on whether the project is consistent with the district’s long-range facilities plan.

Upon the adoption of a resolution approving the issuance, the district must submit an application to the commissioner. If the commissioner approves the application, principal and interest on the bonds would be repaid with school district funds, and the amount required for those payments must be certified by the board of education and included in the taxes assessed, levied, and collected in the municipality or municipalities comprising the school district for those purposes.

Approval by the full Senate on May 26 follows the bill’s approval by the Senate Education Committee on May 9. The bill has not yet been heard in the Assembly.

It is the NJSBA’s understanding that this legislation was introduced in response to severe damage to facilities of the Cresskill Public School District caused by Hurricane Ida. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Student Civic Engagement S-2304 permits, beginning with the 2023-2024 school year, excused absences for students who attend civic events. This bill would permit public school pupils in grades six through 12 one excused absence to attend a civic event each school year. School districts would also be permitted to provide additional excused absences for such purposes. Excused absences taken under this bill would not be reflected on student attendance records. Parents or guardians of pupils who wish to use an excused absence under this bill would be required to provide signed written notice at least five school days in advance of the intended excused absence and such other documentation as the school district deems necessary to prove that the pupil meets the requirements for an excused absence. The bill would require the commissioner of education to provide guidance to districts regarding excused absences for civic events, and the State Board of Education would adopt implementing regulations. The Senate Education Committee approved the bill May 9. On the Assembly side, the Assembly Education Committee approved this bill’s Assembly counterpart, A-1271, in March, and it awaits consideration by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee. NJSBA supports the legislation.

Assembly

Electric School Bus Program A-1282 would establish a $45 million, three-year grant program in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to help determine the operational reliability and cost effectiveness of replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric school buses.

Under the program, NJDEP would select at least six districts and bus contractors each year through a competitive grant process, with a focus on low-income communities, urban communities and communities that the NJDEP determines to have been burdened with environmental justice issues.  NJDEP may not award more than half of the grants to contractors. Grants would support the purchase, lease, or installation of electric school buses and electric school bus charging infrastructure.

The bill would require NJDEP to submit a report to the governor and the Legislature within six months following the conclusion of the program. The report would include, among other information, recommendations for how additional funding may be distributed to maximize the number of electric school buses operating in the state.

NJSBA supports the bill. It was approved by the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee May 12 and by the Assembly Appropriations Committee May 19. Its Senate counterpart, S-759, was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee and awaits consideration by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

School Meal Expansions A-2368, designated as the “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act,” requires schools to provide free school breakfasts and lunches to students from working class, middle-income families. The bill is a part of a 10-bill package spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin aimed at combating hunger and expanding programs for working-class families, seniors and disabled residents.

Currently, students from “low-income” households, defined as those with an annual income that is equal to or less than 185% of the federal poverty level, are entitled to a free breakfast or lunch. This bill would expand eligibility for a free meal by requiring public schools to serve breakfast and lunch, free of charge, to students from working class, middle-income families. The bill defines “middle-income family” as one with an annual household income amounting to not less than 186%, and not more than 199%, of the federal poverty level. To avoid an unfunded mandate, the state would provide funding to reimburse the costs associated with each district’s provision of free meals to middle-income students who are federally ineligible for such meals under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program. It is estimated that roughly 26,000 students would become newly eligible for free meals under this proposal at a cost of approximately $19 million. Each school district, and the Department of Agriculture, would be required, by the bill, to publicize to parents and students the fact that free meals are available to middle-income students under these school meal programs, pursuant to the bill’s provisions. The NJSBA supports the expansion of free meals to middle-income students, particularly since the state will pick up the costs of doing so.

However, the NJSBA has expressed concerns regarding the proposed requirement in the legislation that all schools offer breakfast and lunch to students, regardless of the percentage of students in the schools who are federally eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Under existing law, schools are only required to maintain school breakfast or lunch programs if the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals in a school exceeds 20% or 5%, respectively. As referred to the committee, the bill would require any districts that do not already operate a school lunch program to do so within one year of the bill going into effect. The deadline for establishing a breakfast program for students in grades pre-K through sixth grade would be Sept. 1, 2023, and Sept. 1, 2024, for all other grade levels. The bill does not currently include funding to offset costs associated with establishing and maintaining new meal programs.

Prior to receiving a floor vote, the Assembly Appropriations Committee amended the bill to maintain the current 5% threshold at which the requirement to provide school lunch is triggered. The amendments also adjusted the school breakfast mandate. Instead of requiring all schools to offer breakfast, the bill now will only extend the mandate to those schools in which more than 10% of its students are federally eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. While NJSBA appreciates that the amendments could mitigate the financial impact of the bill, due to the potentially significant financial and operational burden this new requirement would impose on school districts that do not currently offer breakfast, the NJSBA continues to seek amendments to maintain the existing threshold.

The bill’s Senate counterpart, S-1677, was reported out of the Senate Education Committee in March and is now awaiting consideration by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

To view the full text of any of the bills summarized above, visit the New Jersey Legislature’s website.

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