The Legislative Committee of the New Jersey School Boards Association held a virtual meeting Saturday, Feb. 26, with state Sen. Vin Gopal of Legislative District 11, chair of the Senate Education Committee, addressing stakeholders on a variety of issues. 

Numerous NJSBA executives and officers attended the meeting, including President Irene LeFebvre and Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, who welcomed participants and pledged the association’s commitment toward working to promote the interests of New Jersey schools, staff and students. 

“I want to thank you for what you do for the children of your district,” Feinsod told attendees, noting how critical governmental relations is in making sure schools are run well. 

Gopal noted he knows how hard it has been for boards of education amid COVID-19, stating that board members have been “in the driver’s seat for some hostility” even when they have been enforcing state mandates. “It is an incredibly thankless job, and I appreciate each and every one of you for what you are doing,” he said. 

As chair of the Senate Education Committee, Gopal plans to focus on a number of issues, including mental health in schools. He cited The Source at Red Bank Regional High School, a school-based youth services program, as a successful program. 

“We are hoping to really focus on mental health in our school districts and making sure each district has the resources they need,” he said. “We have a huge shortage of school workers and mental health counselors.” 

Learning loss during the pandemic remains a big concern, Gopal said. 

“It was really much worse for those families whose children weren’t doing well to begin with, as well as special needs and other categories,” he said.  

On the subject of charter schools, he said, “I think we need to look at a more holistic approach … there needs to be a more transparent process for the public to provide input on a charter’s renewal – or a renewal being declined or expanded,” He added, “I want to look at taking a more holistic approach for the next 10 to 20 years to see where charters are needed – because there are places where they are needed.” 

Staffing shortages, including in the teaching ranks, are a huge issue. There are a number of things Gopal is open to looking at, including a tax credit or tuition reimbursement assistance for newer teachers, or even a one-time bonus to show appreciation for all the work they’ve done during the pandemic. Such shortages have been a problem going back 10 years, and it has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, he said. 

“The starting salary for teachers is about $52,000, which is a decent number,” he said. “The problem is the growth of the salary over time is not good. It could take an educator 30 years before hitting anything close to six figures.” He added that police officers and other public workers get to six figures much faster. 

Jonathan Pushman, director of governmental relations for NJSBA, cited inflationary pressures and asked Gopal if he’d consider bringing attention to the 2% tax levy cap. 

Gopal said he’d like the state to step up in helping with extraordinary special education costs. He added there may be some countywide solutions to ease transportation costs and other expenses, in the form of incentives or tax credits to companies that provide such services. 

He also spoke about the school funding formula, noting that he thinks it’s important for the public to be able to provide input. Gopal is the co-sponsor with Steven Oroho (R-24) of S-354, a bill the New Jersey Senate recently approved that would create a task force to reevaluate the current school funding formula. 

One of the more controversial topics Gopal addressed was school consolidation, noting that “I’m concerned when we have 600 local school districts.” He said it’s not an easy topic, and that he’s seen budgets from some small districts that are “way more efficient” than larger ones. “So, it’s not one-size fits all,” he said. 

With that said, he expressed concern that some districts have eighth graders graduating and they go to a high school that has failed to coordinate curriculum with the sending middle school. “There is a lot of redundancies on contracts, and it’s not the fault of any one district when you don’t know what another district is doing,” he said. 

Gopal said, “I know people don’t want to hear word ‘consolidation.’” But he added he thinks it makes sense to explore sharing certain services and to have conversations to see if consolidation may make sense. He added that he was disappointed that not many districts undertook feasibility studies even when the state offered to pay for the studies and provide other incentives that would not lock them in to having to consolidate. 

“People love the idea of consolidation, but just not in my own backyard,” he said. “And I know this is not an easy topic.” 

Review of Legislation 

Pushman teamed up with John Burns, senior legislative counsel at NJSBA, to provide a detailed overview of legislation that the governor recently signed into law, including: 

  • Student Journalists’ Rights S-108/A-169: Concerns speech rights of student journalists at public schools and public institutions of higher education. (P.L.2021, c.309) 
  • School Security Drills S-3726-A-5727: Ensures student well-being during school security drills. (P.L.2021, c.365
  • Addressing CTE Teacher Shortage S-4074/A-6000: Allows alternative evaluation in place of basic skills testing requirements for certain teacher certification. (P.L.2021, c.420) 
  • Hiring Retired Staff A-5576/S-3685: Permits teacher and professional staff members who provide special services retired from TPAF to return to employment for up to two years without reenrollment in TPAF if employment commences during 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years. (P.L.2021, c.408)  
  • AAPI Instruction S-4021/A-6100: Requires school districts to provide instruction on history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of implementation of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Social Studies. (P.L.2021, c.416)  
  • BOE Student Representative S-1219/A-3392: Requires a student representative be appointed to each board of education of a school district that includes a high school. (P.L.2021, c.446)  
  • Asian American Heritage S-3764/A-3369: Establishes Commission on Asian American Heritage DOE. (P.L.2021, c.410) 
  • District Website Accessibility S-3094/A-4856: Requires websites and web services of school districts, charter schools and renaissance schools to be accessible to persons with disabilities. (P.L.2021, c.461)  

Commenting on the district website accessibility bill, Burns noted that the NJSBA pointed out early on in the process that it would amount to an unfunded mandate. At one point, there was an amendment drafted that would have included funding, but it did not make it into the final legislation. 

“But we have had assurances from various legislators that they would include funding for this initiative in the budget process, so there would be money in this upcoming budget when it is effective July 1,” Burns said. 

“We are obviously supportive of making sure people with disabilities can access the internet websites for school districts,” Pushman added. “But we want to make sure the state provides a certain level of support for school districts, so it does not become an unfunded mandate.” 

Pushman and Burns also highlighted numerous bills that have advanced through the Senate and Assembly Education Committees, which School Board Notes will continue to follow. 

Pushman also took the opportunity to wish his longtime colleague, Christopher Jones, legislative advocate at the NJSBA, his best wishes as he leaves the Association to join the New Jersey Department of Education. “We’ll be bringing on a new legislative advocate in short order,” Pushman said. 

He also urged everyone to participate in NJSBA’s Spring Symposium, April 26-April 27, which is the prelude to the annual Workshop in October. There will be numerous sessions focused on governmental relations and legislative advocacy, he said. 

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