The New Jersey School Boards Association’s Legislative Committee met virtually Saturday, March 4, to learn about important developments in the Legislature and also heard from two special guests: Sen. Andrew Zwicker and Assemblywoman Sadaf F. Jaffer.
The two legislators have some things in common: Both represent Legislative District 16; both have a Doctor of Philosophy degree and both work at Princeton University, where Zwicker is head of strategic partnerships and public engagement at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and Jaffer serves as a postdoctoral research associate.
Dr. Karen Cortellino, NJSBA’s vice president for legislation/resolutions, called the meeting to order, announced a quorum and presided over the approval of the Dec. 10. 2022, meeting minutes.
Ray Pinney, the Association’s director of county activities and member engagement, thanked the Legislative Committee’s departing members for their service and welcomed new members.
Irene Lefebvre, president of NJSBA; and Dr. Timothy Purnell, the Association’s executive director and CEO, thanked attendees for taking time out of their Saturday morning to focus on helping children.
Jonathan Pushman, director of government relations at NJSBA, moderated the bulk of the meeting and informed attendees about how last week, the Task Force on Public School Staff Shortages in New Jersey released a detailed report highlighting its initial recommendations to address teacher and education support professional shortages in school districts throughout the state.
“A lot of our priorities made their way in there,” he said of the report. Some of the recommendations have already been built into the governor’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget, he said.
Jesse Young, legislative advocate at NJSBA, echoed Pushman’s sentiments about being pleased with the NJSBA priorities reflected in the report. He noted, however, that the report makes it clear that the task force did not reach consensus on all points.
Cortellino welcomed the two legislators, noting that Jaffer – who has announced she won’t be running for re-election – is the Assembly’s first Asian American woman and its first Muslim American to be elected. She formerly served as mayor of Montgomery Township.
Jaffer, who has spent much her career in higher education and is a member of the Assembly Education Committee, thanked members of the committee for inviting her to participate. “I know the power of public education to provide opportunities for all students regardless of background,” she said.
One of her priorities is making sure we focus on supporting students’ mental health, she said. “They need to be getting the services they need, whether in schools themselves or getting the referrals that are needed,” she said.
Another area that interests her is making sure we take steps to increase the number of candidates in the teacher pipeline. “We need to increase the pipeline and allow people of different backgrounds to enter the profession and incentivize people to do that,” she said.
Zwicker, a physicist by background and training, noted that he’s married to a public educator – a long-term teacher with the Hillsborough Township Public School District. When he was a member of the Assembly, he served on the Assembly Education Committee.
Like Jaffer, he’s deeply concerned about the teacher pipeline. One of the areas he’s been focused on for some time includes alternative pathways to teaching – especially as it relates to science, technology, engineering and math education.
It’s critical to maintain the high quality of the state’s schools, he said. “We know better than anyone the value of public education,” he said. “Studies show that the higher level of education, the better you do – not just in your professional life but in your social and emotional life,” he said.
He thanked participating board members for all their hard work to advance public education. “What you do, we all know is never easy, but over the last few years, it has gotten significantly more challenging,” he observed.
Attendees had the chance to engage in a dialogue with both of the legislators, with much of the conversation focusing on the school funding formula and the New Jersey Department of Education’s recently released state aid figures under the governor’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget. Representatives from some boards claimed that the figures represented a sharper reduction of state aid than they were anticipating.
“Of course, we are thrilled to see record levels of investment overall in the budget,” Zwicker said. “That is wonderful and looking at our district, of 16 public school districts, 14 either saw flat funding or increases – and two saw decreases.”
“A formula is a formula – it is an attempt to be as fair and equitable as possible,” Jaffer added. “But at those stress points, we need to make sure we are providing the support that is needed,”
Pushman noted that while funding is important “predictability is almost as important.” He said that there is problem when districts are told they are not raising their local shares but then are subjected to a 2% property tax levy growth cap. “There are plenty of districts asking for the ability under limited circumstances to go above a 2% cap,” Zwicker said. Jaffer noted, “I would support any efforts to make the process less painful and clearer.”
In his closing remarks, Zwicker noted that he’s a big believer in expanding preschool, noting “the return on investment is profound.” He added, “I give Gov. Murphy and his team an enormous amount of credit for continuing to push in that direction, and I will continue to advocate for that.”
Young teamed up with John Burns, senior legislative counsel at NJSBA, to provide attendees with an update on the governor’s fiscal year 2024 proposed budget and some of the most significant legislation being considered at the State House. Notably, the proposed budget includes an $832 million increase in K12 formula aid, Young said, and would mark the sixth year of the seven-year phase-in to full funding established under P.L.2018, c.67 (S2). The proposal would also provide $20 million in stabilization aid to help districts that are experiencing a reduction in state aid or are otherwise facing a budgetary imbalance.
Additionally, the proposed budget includes $109 million more in preschool aid, including $40 million for new districts and other expansion needs; $20 million dedicated to new programs focused on teacher recruitment and retention; and over $30 million for tutoring and literacy professional development. It also includes $420 million in extraordinary special education aid, the same as the current budget.
Burns highlighted that the State Board of Education recently adopted updated School Ethics Commission regulations. He referred board members to a Feb. 22 article in School Board Notesthat focuses on changes to rules concerning advisory opinions from the SEC and a Feb. 14 article in School Board Notes that assists board members in navigating changes to training requirements. He noted that the new regulations require that new board members, charter and renaissance trustees complete the first-year training requirement within 90 days of being sworn in as board members.
Young and Burns also highlighted a variety of bills that are pending in the state Legislature, including several pertaining to student mental health and efforts to build the teacher pipeline.