Several state Assembly and Senate committees convened last week and advanced education-related bills. One particularly noteworthy development is that the Assembly has begun consideration of the school district regionalization legislation, which was passed unanimously by the full Senate in March. The following provides a summary of any bills impacting school districts that passed through committee over the past week.

Assembly Education Committee

Voluntary Regionalization Grants  A-5537/S-3488  This bill modifies certain procedures pertaining to school district regionalization; establishes a grant program for conducting regionalization feasibility studies; and provides financial incentives. This voluntary regionalization program 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 elect to implement 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. NJSBA supports the measure because it is voluntary. The bill now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Expedited Alt Route Certification  S-3253/A-2619 would require the State Board of Education to authorize an alternate route to expedite the certification of persons to teach grades seven through 12 at an early college high school. The alternate route will consist of a three-tiered certificate program, similar to the alternate route provided for charter school teachers. This certification would be used only for employment at an early college high school, not in any other public school. NJSBA is monitoring the bill.

Teacher Loan Redemption Program  S-969/A-2687 would establish a loan redemption program in the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) to allow teachers to redeem a portion of their NJCLASS loan amounts for service as a teacher in a high-need field in a “low-performing school.” NJSBA supports the legislation and believes that incentives, such as grants and loans, should be made available to attract outstanding students to the teaching profession, particularly in areas of critical shortage. The Association also believes that loans should be forgiven for students who agree to teach a certain number of years in areas of critical shortage. If the bill receives final approval in its current form, up to $1 million could be appropriated to the program.

‘Limited’ Teacher Certification Pilot  A-4594/S-2826 directs the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to establish a five-year pilot program for the issuance of limited certificates of eligibility with advanced standing (CEAS) and limited certificates of eligibility (CE). The “limited CEAS” and “limited CE” would be available to individuals who may not meet one of the general requirements for a CEAS or CE and who are seeking employment in a school. Those who hold a limited CEAS or limited CE would only be eligible for employment at school districts approved by the NJDOE. Districts must demonstrate a sufficient capability to support new teachers while also showing that hiring a teacher with limited certification would fill a need.

Mental Health Data Reporting  A4838/S-2811  Under this bill, the annual report card submitted by a school district would also be required 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. NJSBA is monitoring the bill which now heads to the full Assembly for consideration.

Culturally Responsive Teaching A-5312/S-2834 would mandate that all candidates for teaching certification complete a course or training on culturally responsive teaching. The bill defines “culturally responsive teaching” as a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning, using  research-based teaching strategies that make meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages, and experiences. This requirement would go into effect with the 2021-2022 school year.

School Audit Delay A-5834 provides school districts with a two-month extension to file their required annual audits with the commissioner of education. Under current law, the board of education of every school district must have an annual audit of the district’s accounts and financial transactions completed not later than five months after the end of the school year.  A report of the annual audit is filed by the accountant with the board of education, and within five days thereafter, with the commissioner of education. A-5834 extends the deadline for the completion of the annual audit of the 2020-2021 school fiscal year until Jan. 31, 2022 and its submission to the commissioner until Feb. 5, 2022.  The bill also provides that, notwithstanding the extended deadline for submission of a school district’s annual audit report, a school district is required to submit the audit summary for the 2020-2021 school year to the New Jersey Department of Education by Jan. 4, 2022. Similar legislation was signed into law last December that applied to the 2019-2020 school year.

Assembly State and Local Government

Chapter 44 Amendments  The committee advanced legislation, A-5825, that 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. “Chapter 44,” was expected to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in health care savings for employees, school districts and taxpayers. While some districts have indeed realized savings, a significant number of others have experienced the opposite effect. NJSBA has advocated for financial relief for the latter. The NJSBA publicly testified on the bill, and a copy of the Association’s position statement on the measure can be found here.

The most significant component of the legislation, A-5825, is an amendment to section 8 of Chapter 44, which concerns the ability of boards of education and their unions to negotiate over any financial losses resulting from the implementation of Chapter 44. Section 8 currently provides as follows:

“With regard to employers that have collective negotiation agreements in effect on the effective date of this act, P.L.2020, c.44, that includes health care benefits coverage available to employees when the net cost to the employer is lower than the cost to the employer would be compared to the New Jersey Educators Health Plan, the employer and the majority representative shall engage in collective negotiations over the financial impact of the difference.”

A-5825 adds language directing boards of education and unions invoking Section 8 to engage in negotiations in order to “substantially mitigate” the financial impact of the difference when the net cost to the employer for health care benefits is lower than the cost to the employer would be compared to the NJEHP.  Under the bill, substantial mitigation may include changes to plan level offerings or contributions for the NJEHP, or to both plan level offerings and contributions. This marks a departure from Chapter 44’s existing language which does not allow for such changes and essentially “locks in” both plan design of, and employee contributions towards, the NJEHP.

The bill also directs any school district with an increase in net cost as a result of Chapter 44 to commence negotiations immediately, unless mutually agreed upon to opt to substantially mitigate the financial impact 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.

A-5825 also includes the following provisions:

  • Changes the effective date of the new Garden State Health Plan (GSHP), as established by Chapter 44, from July 1, 2021 to January 1, 2022;
  • Permits charter school and renaissance school employers to not implement Chapter 44 unless they had a collective negotiation agreement with any of their employees in effect on or before the law’s effective date;
  • Clarifies that the provisions concerning mandatory enrollment in the New Jersey Educators Health Plan (NJEHP) does 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 in a health care benefits plan offered by the employer;
  • 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, A-5825 compels 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.

The NJSBA also believes that delaying the effective date of the Garden State Health Plan is an appropriate adjustment as districts could use additional time to develop and offer the new option. However, the Association has raised questions regarding whether the new plan should be implemented at all, since the NJEHP it is modeled on has not resulted in reduced health care costs across all districts. The GSHP will have the same design as the NJEHP, however it will only include coverage for New Jersey-based providers, and the employee contributions towards the plan will be half of what employees are required to pay towards NJEHP coverage.

While a slight improvement compared to existing law, the NJSBA feels that the bill does not go far enough toward alleviating the pain some districts have experienced since Chapter 44 went into effect. In testimony to the committee, the NJSBA urged the Legislature to use A-5825 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. The NJSBA believes that the Legislature had the best of intentions when it passed Chapter 44, and remains hopeful it will act to protect both boards of education and taxpayers from the adverse consequences it is having on many of our members’ budgets, while still protecting the gains made by others.

The bill has been referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration. The legislation’s Senate counterpart, S-3487, has already passed through committee and is expected to receive a floor vote later this month.

Senate Transportation Committee

Bus Contractor Blacklist 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 State Board of Education 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, which now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

School Bus Safety Ombudsman  S-3851 creates a School Bus Safety Ombudsman position in, but not of, the NJDOE. The School Bus Safety Ombudsman will be appointed by the governor. Duties will include assisting in bus driver backgrounds checks and training requirements, assisting in the development of a student information card, and establishing a publicly accessible database that compiles the violations and subsequent fines of a school bus driver or school bus contractor. NJSBA supports the bill which heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.

Unauthorized Drivers S-3852 This bill 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 this bill, which now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee

Mercury Flooring  S-1715 requires new flooring for K-12 schools and child care centers to be certified mercury free. A flooring manufacturer that issues a certificate that falsely states that a flooring product is free of mercury and compounds containing mercury will be liable to a civil penalty of $10,000 for a first offense and $25,000 for a second or subsequent offense. NJSBA supports the bill.

Senate Labor Committee

Unlawful Harassment and Discrimination  S-3352 This bill makes it a violation of the “Law Against Discrimination,” P.L.1945, c.169 (C.10:5-1 et seq.) to subject an individual, in employment, public accommodations, or housing, to sexual harassment or other unlawful harassment. The bill extends the protections of the anti-discrimination law to cover interns and independent contractors, among others. However, the bill also extends the timeline for the filing of harassment complaints, establishes increased liability for offenses, and expands what constitutes an offense which would increase costs to employers, including school districts.  NJSBA opposes the bill because of the increased costs and increased liability to school districts. The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Temporary Paid Sick Leave Expansion S-3827 provides temporary paid earned sick leave to workers during the pandemic. Under the bill, employers (including boards of education) would be required to provide leave to employees and address employee leave issues that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. This leave would be in addition to any other leave to which the employee is already entitled.

Under the bill, an employer would be required to provide 10 days of paid leave to any employee who is unable to work for reasons that mirror the provision in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

NJSBA opposes the bill, which has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.