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On June 5, 2024, Gov. Phil Murphy signed S-2930/A-4045 (P.L.2024, c16), a bill that revises the state’s Open Public Records Act, into law. This measure contains several important changes that update the 22-year-old law including, but not limited to, provisions that:

  • Further clarify an agency’s responsibility to protect personal information with which it has been entrusted, including debit card number, bank account information, month and day of birth, any personal email address required by a public agency for government applications, services, or programs. Additionally, it includes that portion of any document that discloses the personal identifying information of any person provided to a public agency for the sole purpose of receiving official notifications, as well as any indecent or graphic images of a person’s intimate parts that are captured in a photograph or video recording without the prior written consent of the subject of the photograph or video footage.
  • Enhance protections for video surveillance systems by exempting from public access security alarm system activity and access reports, including video footage, for any public building, facility, or grounds unless the request identifies a specific incident that occurred, or a specific date and limited time period at a particular public building, facility, or grounds, and is deemed not to compromise the integrity of the security system by revealing capabilities and vulnerabilities of the system.
  • Provide greater flexibility to public agencies in fulfilling records requests by limiting “immediate access records” to only those “budgets, bills, vouchers, contracts, including collective negotiations agreements and individual employment contracts, and public employee salary and overtime information” produced in the last 24 months. All other records must be provided within seven business days. If the record is for a commercial purpose, then the request must be fulfilled in 14 business days. A requestor shall have 14 business days to retrieve the government records following notice from the custodian that the request has been completed and the records are available.
  • Require government records to be made available to the public on a publicly available website to the extent feasible. If the records are on the website, the records custodian may direct the requestor to the website as a means of fulfilling the records request. If the requestor cannot locate the record on the website, assistance shall be provided by the records custodian. If the requestor is still unable to locate the record and requests a physical copy, the custodian shall provide the requestor with a physical copy of the record, for a fee not exceeding two times the cost of the production of the document.  The custodian shall provide the requestor with a physical copy of the record within seven business days of the request for a physical copy.
  • Specify that anonymous requests will still be permitted under OPRA. However, an anonymous requestor will not be able to appeal a denial of the records request.
  • Clarify that requestors will still be entitled to reimbursement of their attorney’s fees when an agency acts in “bad faith.” In all other instances, reimbursement of attorney fees will be at the discretion of the court or Government Records Council.

The law goes into effect 90 days after the June 5 signing date. The New Jersey School Boards Association supported the passage of the law.

Murphy issued a signing statement upon approving the legislation, which can be accessed here.

Assembly Education Committee

On Thursday, June 6, the committee advanced the following measures:

Freedom To Read A-3446, also known as the “Freedom to Read Act,” establishes various requirements for material in public school libraries and public libraries. It also aims to protect school library staff from harassment.

Under the bill, all boards of education will need to adopt policies on the curation of school library material and requests for the removal of any such material from the school library. These policies will be subject to various minimum requirements, but the board of education will maintain control over such policies. The commissioner of education will develop model policies to assist boards of education in complying with the bill. The NJSBA is explicitly named in the bill as one of the organizations that the commissioner is required to consult with in developing both of these model policies. The State Librarian and the New Jersey Association of School Librarians will also be consulted.

According to the bill, the purpose of the curation policy is to: provide standards for the curation of library material; establish criteria for the removal of existing school library material or material selected for inclusion in the library; and provide protection against attempts to censor library material. The policies shall:

  1. Recognize that library material should be provided for the interest, information and enlightenment of all students and should present diverse points of view.
  2. Acknowledge that library material shall not be removed from a library because of the origin, background, or views of the material or those contributing to its creation.
  3. Recognize the importance of school libraries as centers for voluntary inquiry and the dissemination of information and ideas.
  4. Promote the free expression and free access to ideas by students by prohibiting the censorship of library material. (Note: “Censorship,” as defined in the bill, does not include the limiting or restricting of access to any library material deemed developmentally inappropriate for certain students.)
  5. Acknowledge that a school library media specialist is professionally trained to curate and develop the school library collection that provides students with access to the widest array of developmentally appropriate library material.
  6. Establish a procedure for a school library media specialist to review library material within a school library on an ongoing basis.

Boards of education will have discretion over the selection, purchase or acquisition of school library material. Nothing in the bill will require a board to acquire any library material, nor will it restrict the board’s authority to select textbooks and supplies related to the curriculum.

The bill delineates the following components that must be included in the removal policy:

  1. Provide for the creation of a request for removal form, based on a model removal form developed by the New Jersey Department of Education.
  2. Require the principal to forward any request to the superintendent, who will appoint a review committee consisting of the following:
    1. The superintendent (or designee).
    2. The principal of the school (or designee).
    3. The school library media specialist or a school library staff member.
    4. A representative selected by the board of education.
    5. At least one grade-appropriate teacher familiar with the material.
    6. A parent or guardian of a student enrolled in the district.
    7. At the discretion of the superintendent, in cases where a student enrolled in the district in grades nine through 12 filed the removal form, a student may volunteer to serve.
    8. Any additional members the superintendent deems necessary.
  3. Require that the challenged material remain within the library until there is a final decision reached by the board of education on whether to remove it.
  4. Require the review committee to evaluate the request for removal form, review the challenged material, and report its recommendations on whether to remove the library material to the board of education no later than 60 school days from the date of the next regularly scheduled board meeting.
  5. Require the board of education to review the report and make a final determination on whether the material is to be removed from the library or limited in use. The board shall provide a written statement of reasons for the removal, limitation, or non-removal of a material, as well as any final determination that is contrary to the committee’s recommendations. This statement will be posted on the board’s website.

Any library material challenged under policy may not be subject to a subsequent challenge for at least one year. Districts will also be permitted to consolidate requests for removal of the same material. Removal requests may be submitted by any of the following individuals deemed to have a “vested interest” in the school: a teacher, a parent/guardian of a student, or an enrolled student. The form shall require the requestor to specify which sections of the material the individual objects to and an explanation of the reasons for the objection.

The bill prohibits a board of education from engaging in censorship or from removing material because of the origin, background or views of the material. Students will be granted the right to check out any developmentally appropriate material. In addition, school library staff will be granted civil and criminal immunity, so long as they perform their duties in good faith.

The NJSBA supports the overall spirit and intent of the bill and worked closely with the sponsors and other stakeholders to develop this most recent version of the legislation.

In testimony before the committee, the NJSBA cited its official policy concerning academic freedom and student access to instructional and library materials. In particular, the Association referred to the following policy language adopted at the December 2023 Delegate Assembly:

The NJSBA believes that boards of education have the responsibility to ensure all instructional materials are age-appropriate, complement the district curriculum and/or student support programs, facilitate critical thinking, further learning, and are congruent with local community preferences.  In light of this belief, a board of education book selection process should only restrict access to or exclude a book or other learning materials from its curriculum, library, or other support resources following a process that evaluates the book or materials in a manner that is consistent with the constitutional and statutory protections afforded individuals by the state.

The testimony also highlighted a number of key ways that the bill reinforces the authority of local boards of education and allows them to remain responsive to community preferences, including:

  • Explicitly clarifying that the board of education maintains control over both the curation and removal request policies required under the bill.
  • Explicitly specifies that boards retain the authority and discretion over selecting any materials included in the school library.
  • Regarding those materials, while requiring that they be diverse and inclusive, it also provides important discretion to the board by stipulating that such material will not include content that is inappropriate for the grades served by the library.
  • Specifying that that the bill does not in any way restrict a board’s authority to select textbooks or supplies related to the curriculum.
  • Protecting the board from any potential accusations of censorship by continuing to allow it to limit or restrict access to any library deemed developmentally inappropriate for certain students.
  • Ensuring that the board will make the final determination over any request for removal of materials and will have the ultimate authority to decide whether to remove, not remove, or limit access to such materials.
  • Insulating the board from interference by individuals or organizations with no connection to the district by limiting who can submit requests to remove library materials.

The measure advanced by the committee is significantly scaled down and different from the original version introduced earlier this year. The NJSBA will continue to work with the sponsors and stakeholders to address any outstanding concerns with the bill. The measure now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

TPAF Reenrollment Changes A-1675 extends the length of time a member of the teachers’ pension system (Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund, or TPAF) can discontinue their service and still maintain their membership in the system.  Under current law, membership in the TPAF ceases if an individual discontinues service for more than two years.  This bill extends the period of discontinuance to seven years. The bill also extends the length of time a member who left service for certain qualifying reasons (e.g., due to a reduction in force) may return to service and includes among the qualifying reasons those who voluntarily left service with 10 or more years of service credit.  Under current law, membership in the TPAF may continue if such a member returns to service within a period of 10 years from the date of discontinuance from service.  This bill extends the period of discontinuance to 25 years. Members who return to service under the terms of this bill will be placed in the member’s pension tier at the time of their original termination of service.

The NJSBA is monitoring the bill. As released by the committee, the legislation would have no direct impact on school district finances, as the state pays the employer share of TPAF costs on behalf of boards of education. The bill has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Purchasing E-Buses and Expanding ACES Program A-1677 authorizes a board of education to use competitive contracting and enter into extended contracts and lease terms for electric school buses. The bill also permits the New Jersey School Boards Association to serve as a government aggregator to obtain energy services for local units.

Under current law, a school district may utilize competitive contracting in lieu of public bidding for the procurement of certain listed specialized goods and services that exceed the bid threshold.  A-1677 would add to that list by permitting competitive contracting for the purchase of electric school buses and related infrastructure. Current law also permits a school district to enter into a contract for the leasing of school buses for a term not exceeding 10 years.  The amended bill provides that a school district may enter into a contract for the leasing of electric school buses and related charging equipment and services for a term not in excess of the service life of the vehicle.  The bill similarly amends existing law to extend the terms of a lease purchase agreement for electric school buses.

A-1677 also amends current law to provide that the NJSBA may serve as a government aggregator to obtain electric school buses and related goods and services. That law already permits the NJSBA to serve as a government aggregator for the procurement of electric and natural gas services for its members. In 1999, the NJSBA established the Alliance for Competitive Energy Services program pursuant to that authority, and the program has generated significant financial savings for participating districts. At the request of the NJSBA, the bill was amended to allow counties, municipalities and other local contracting units to voluntarily participate in the program, which should serve to generate even greater economic benefits.

The NJSBA supports the bill, which may now be posted for an Assembly floor vote.

GED, etc. Exam Fee Waiver A-2425 requires the State Board of Education to establish a program to pay the high school equivalency exam fees on behalf of low-income individuals. The bill defines a low-income individual as one who lives in a household in which the household income is 185% or less than the most recent federal poverty guidelines. The NJSBA is monitoring the bill, which has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Tax Deduction for Classroom Supplies S-1980/A-2227 would allow educators to deduct from their gross income for the taxable year up to $250 in unreimbursed expenses for the purchase of classroom supplies. K-12 teachers, counselors, speech language specialists, principals and aides that provide at least 900 hours of service in a public or private school would be eligible. The NJSBA supports the bill, which has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Second Questions A-4084/S-2837 authorizes school districts to submit separate proposals for additional spending for the subsequent budget year at a special school election. Under current law, a school district may submit to the voters at the annual school election, a separate question or proposal for permission to raise additional funds for the budget year beyond the district’s authorized tax levy.  This bill would allow districts to submit proposals to voters at a special school election to raise such additional funds for the subsequent school budget year.  Special school elections may occur in January, March, September, and December.  A separate proposal or proposals may only be submitted on a date of a special election once during a school year. The NJSBA supports the bill, which has already passed the full Senate and may now be posted for an Assembly floor vote.

Teacher Residency Requirement A-4307 establishes an exemption from the state residency requirement for newly hired public school teachers for two years. Under the bill, a school district or charter school may request an exemption from the New Jersey First Act on the basis of an inability to hire an appropriately certified teacher for a vacant teaching position who complies with the state residency requirement.  A school district or charter school requesting an exemption is required to: certify that the vacant teaching position has been advertised for at least six months; demonstrate good faith efforts to fill the position with a teacher who maintains a principal residence in this state; and submit documentation that the candidate for employment is appropriately certified as a teacher in the state.  If a school district or charter school is granted an exemption, the district or charter school is then permitted to hire the appropriately certified teacher.  The bill provides that the person hired is not required to request the exemption. Additionally, the bill stipulates that any person hired through this exemption is required to establish New Jersey residency within two years of the date of the person’s initial employment.  While appreciative of the opportunity to have a public discussion on this matter, the NJSBA expressed concerns that the bill, as currently structured, would not be substantially effective in alleviating the existing teacher shortage. The NJSBA will continue to advocate for added flexibility regarding the state residency requirement, if not an outright repeal. A separate but related measure, S-2181, is working its way through the Senate.

Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology Committee

On June 6, the committee advanced the following bill:

Reporting Cybersecurity Incidents A-3897 would require municipalities, counties, and school districts to report cybersecurity incidents.

Under the bill, the attorney general, in consultation with the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell, would develop an online cybersecurity incident reporting form for a designated employee to report a cybersecurity incident.

The bill provides that the online form would be used promptly after the designated employee has been made aware of a cybersecurity incident and specify if the cybersecurity incident has done either of the following:

  • Compromised the confidentiality, integrity, availability, or privacy of the billing, communications, data management or information systems, or the information resources thereon.
  • Compromised the industrial control system, if applicable, including monitoring operations, and centralized control systems, that adversely impacted, disabled, or manipulated infrastructure, resulting in loss of service or damage to infrastructure.

Under the bill, no later than 30 days after receiving a cybersecurity incident that has been submitted through the online form, the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell would require an audit of the cybersecurity program of a municipality, county, or school district, and any actions a municipality, county, or school district took in response to the cybersecurity incident.

The bill provides that the audit of a municipality, county, or school district, would identify:

  • Cyberthreats and vulnerabilities to a municipality, county, or school district.
  • Weaknesses in municipal, county, or school district cybersecurity programs.
  • Strategies to address those weaknesses as to protect a municipality, county, or school district from the threat of future cybersecurity incidents.

Under the bill, the audit established would be conducted by a qualified and independent cybersecurity company and would be paid for by the Department of Law and Public Safety.

The bill provides that after the audit is conducted, a governing body of a municipality or county, or a school district, would submit the audit and any corrective action plans derived from the audit to the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell. The audit and corrective action plans would be exempt from the Open Public Records Act, and costs for compliance would be reimbursed. The NJSBA is monitoring the legislation.

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