On Thursday, June 3, both the state Senate and Assembly convened at the State House for voting sessions and passed various education-related measures. A rundown of the day’s activity follows.

On Governor’s Desk

The following pieces of legislation have now received final legislative approval and await action by Gov.  Murphy:

Special Education ‘Aging Out’ A-5366/S-3434 would require boards of education to provide special education and related services to students exceeding their age of eligibility. This bill would extend eligibility by requiring school boards to provide the services included in an individualized education program (IEP) to students who reach the age of 21 during the 2020-2021 school year, the 2021-2022 school year, and the 2022-2023 school year, provided that the parent of the student and the IEP team decide that the student requires additional services, including transition services. NJSBA successfully sought amendments to provide funding for the bill.  NJSBA also expressed reservations, however, as the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) already provides for students to seek additional services when a district does not meet its obligations under the IEP.  NJSBA also cited the uncertain costs and logistical challenges of ensuring adequate facilities and staffing levels after district budgets have already been set for the upcoming school year.

Robotics S-2204/A-2455 establishes a pilot program in the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to support FIRST Robotics Programs in school districts. This bill directs the N.J. Commissioner of Education to establish a three-year pilot program that provides grant funding to encourage and support school districts to establish the “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” (FIRST) nonprofit organization’s robotics programs and to participate in a FIRST Robotics Competition. The purpose of the pilot program is to motivate students to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. NJSBA supports the bill.

Suicide Prevention/Student ID Cards  A-1616/S-550 would require that student identification cards for grades seven through 12 have the telephone number for a suicide prevention hotline printed on the back of the card. The bill is back in the Senate to concur with Assembly amendments. NJSBA continues to monitor the bill but has taken no position.

STEM Opportunities for Young Women and Minorities A-1625/S-2854 bill directs the NJDOE, in consultation with the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and the Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology, to develop and administer an outreach program to encourage young women and minorities to pursue post-secondary degrees and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. In developing and administering the outreach program, the NJDOE is to provide elementary and secondary school students, especially young women and minorities, with opportunities to increase their exposure to the STEM fields. Among other goals, the bill aims to establish a STEM mentoring program and create programs to increase the recruitment and retention of underrepresented faculty in STEM subject areas.  For the purposes of this bill, the term STEM includes, but is not limited to, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and computer science. NJSBA supports the bill.

Elsewhere in this issue of School Board NotesGov. Murphy Signs Legislation to End Public Health Emergency.

Passed General Assembly

The following bills have passed the full Assembly and head to the Senate for further consideration:

Student Retention  A-5365 permits parents or guardians to request that students repeat a grade during 2021-2022 school year. Parents of students in grades K-8 will have the opportunity to submit a written request seeking the retention of their student to the principal by June 30.  The request must be evaluated by the school counselor, IEP team or child study team to determine whether the retention will meet the needs of the student. NJSBA supports the bill, as it gives district superintendents final say over any decisions to have a student repeat a grade. 

Work-Readiness Training Incentives  A-1534, entitled the “New Jersey Works Act,” provides a financial incentive for businesses to establish pre-employment and work-readiness training programs in partnership with institutions of higher education, comprehensive high schools, county vocational schools, and nonprofit organizations.  Under the bill, a business entity may receive a credit against the corporation business tax or gross income tax for 100% of any financial assistance provided to support a qualified pre-employment and work-readiness training program approved by the State Employment and Training Commission.  A maximum of $12 million in tax credits per state fiscal year are allowed to be granted to taxpayers for assistance provided to an approved pre-employment and work readiness training program. NJSBA supports the bill.

Regional Reapportionment  A-2300 requires 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.

Passed Senate

The following measures were approved by the full Senate and move to the Assembly:

Special Education Unit  S-2160 would create a special education unit within the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) 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 referred to the OAL would be assigned to and adjudicated by the administrative law judges in the special education unit. NJSBA supports the bill.

Use of Reserve Funds During Emergencies  S-2507  allows districts to use capital reserve funds to support the general fund. The circumstances in which this would be allowed is when schools are closed for at least three consecutive days “due to a declared public health emergency, a state of emergency, or a directive by the appropriate health agency or officer to institute a public health–related closure.”  The reserve funds can be used for expenses related to the emergency or expenses incurred in connection with the transition to and use of virtual or remote instruction. If enacted, the bill would be retroactive to March 18, 2020.

Teacher Diversity Package  The following bills are aimed at increasing diversity in the state’s education workforce, preventing teacher shortages and cultivating inclusive learning environments:

  • S-2826 directs the 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 district. Following two effective or highly effective evaluations, the teacher would be eligible for a standard instructional certificate.
  •  S-2827 would require teachers to complete two hours of professional development related to cultural competence in every two-year period as part of their existing professional development requirement. The instruction must include a discussion of personal and interpersonal awareness and sensitivities; acts of microaggression in the classroom, and implicit bias.
  • S-2829 would establish a three-year “Male Teachers of Color Mentorship Pilot Program.” Under the program, the N.J. Commissioner of Education would select 10 male students of color from state public higher education institutions to work with 10 male teachers of color from participating schools. In that way, each student would be paired with a current teacher who would serve as the student’s mentor through the candidate’s last year of his educator preparation program and the first two years of the student’s teaching career. The teacher will receive a stipend of $5,000, funded by the state, for each year of participation in the program. NJSBA supports the bill.
  • S-2830 requires educator preparation programs to report passing rates of students who complete certain tests and to disseminate information on test fee waiver programs. The bill would also permit the collection of a student fee for certain testing costs.
  • S-2833 establishes a “Teacher Residency Program.” The bill would offer stipends and provide participants with the education and field experience necessary to obtain a New Jersey certificate of eligibility with advance standing, a credential that allows an individual to seek and accept employment as a public school teacher. NJSBA supports the measure, which would be voluntary for school districts.

Expedited Alt Route Certification  S-3253 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.

Remote Instruction Training  S-3469 requires teacher certification candidates to have completed a course on virtual or remote education. The course will include:

  • revising curriculum for an online platform;
  • the most effective tools available for content delivery;
  • creating opportunities for student engagement and discussion;
  • building and sustaining community and connection with, and among, students; and
  • delivering assessments online and monitoring academic progress.

NJDOE would approve the course content. NJSBA supports this bill.

‘Chapter 44’ Amendments

On Thursday, the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee advanced legislation that would make a series of adjustments to the 2020 law that made significant changes to school employees’ health benefits coverage and payment obligations.

That measure, commonly referred to as “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 most significant aspect of the legislation, S-3487, 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.”

S-3487 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.

S-3487 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;

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, S-3487 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 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. 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 may now be posted for a floor vote in the Senate. Its counterpart in the Assembly, A-5825, was introduced last week and is expected to receive committee consideration this week.