On March 25, the state Senate unanimously approved S-3488, which would provide financial incentives for smaller districts to regionalize if merging makes sense for them. The bill would establish criteria for state-funded regionalization studies, while making sure that any regionalization plan remains subject to voter approval – a key priority supported by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“NJSBA supports the bill because it represents a voluntary, incentive-based opportunity for districts to explore regionalization and determine if it would be beneficial to their students and their communities,” said NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod.

In the Winter edition of the NJSBA’s School Leader magazine, Senate President Steve Sweeney explained why his legislation might finally move regionalization forward in a significant way for the first time since 1993, when the state unsuccessfully tried to encourage some of its hundreds of districts to merge.

“Our legislation provides school board members, administrators, teachers and parents broad flexibility in designing K-12 regional or countywide school district implementation plans that work for them,” Sweeney wrote. “It provides greater flexibility on teacher contracts, leaving the existing contracts in place until the next contract negotiation with the merged union for the consolidated district. It provides districts with flexibility to decide how to handle existing debt service or the sale of buildings that are no longer needed.

“Creating larger districts will create greater diversity in a state that is facing potential litigation over desegregation, and in fact, our legislation specifically prohibits any regionalization plan that would reduce diversity.

“In the long run,” Sweeney wrote, “school districts — and taxpayers — will save money through consolidation. Districts with fewer than 500 students spend 17% more per pupil than school districts with more than 1,000 students…

“But it’s not just about the money — it’s about the quality and richness of the educational experience for students in the smallest districts. School officials from one of the first districts that I met with to discuss a potential K-12 regionalization plan in 2019 said they were planning to use the first anticipated savings from their merger to pay for science labs in the new middle school that students from the three towns would all attend.”

For the first time in nearly 30 years, there may be progress in the effort to consolidate some of the hundreds of school districts in New Jersey. According to a March 29 article in NJ Spotlight News, in addition to the 20 districts in Salem County, which Sweeney represents in the Legislature, nearly two dozen other districts are at least seriously discussing whether a merger would make sense for them.

According to NJSpotlight, other districts planning feasibility studies include:

  • The K-12 Pinelands Regional, looking to join with its sending districts in Little Egg Harbor, Bass River, Tuckerton and Eagleswood;
  • Roosevelt Borough, looking to merge into Upper Freehold, Freehold or Millstone;
  • Atlantic Highlands, Highlands and Sea Bright looking to merge into one regional school district.

More than a dozen other districts have gone public in pursuing studies:

  • The K-12 Belvidere district in Warren County, joining with its sending districts in Harmony, Hope and White Township sending districts;
  • Watchung Hills Regional, joining with its sending districts in Warren, Watchung, Long Hill and Green Brook in Somerset and Morris Counties;
  • Wildwood joining with its North Wildwood, West Wildwood and Wildwood Crest sending districts in Cape May County.

The legislation now heads to the Assembly and has been referred to the Assembly Education Committee. The bill bars any regionalization that would encourage segregation, and provides financial incentives for districts losing state aid because of declining enrollment.

Districts would be encouraged to regionalize because they could potentially get more state aid for undertaking the regionalization study. The schedule for their Adjustment Aid cuts would be extended. The bill, S-3488, establishes an eight-year phase-out of Adjustment Aid cuts — stretched out from the current four years — for districts participating in a LEAP (Local Efficiency Achievement Program) regionalization study. The extended phase-out of Adjustment Aid continues 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. Most importantly, S-3488 ensures that the final decision to move forward with any regionalization plan remains subject to voter approval.

Signed into Law

Marijuana Offenses & Parental Notification A-5472 requires law enforcement to provide written notice to the parent or guardian of a minor purchasing or possessing alcohol or cannabis. Recently enacted legislation legalizing cannabis had laid out a written warning system for minors found in possession of cannabis. However, parents or guardians were not to be notified until the second and subsequent violations. This bill addresses parental notification for first offenses. NJSBA supported this bill.

On the Governor’s Desk

The following bills have now cleared both houses of the Legislature and were sent to the governor for his consideration:

Pilot Program for SEL in Early Elementary Years S-2486/A-4264 establishes a five-year Clayton Model Pilot Program in the Department of Education to provide a social emotional learning program to elementary school students attending selected public schools. The pilot program would be based on the Clayton Model, which is a responsive, trauma-informed intervention program for student development that was created by the Clayton School District in Gloucester County. Under the bill, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education would select three counties to participate in the pilot program: a county in the northern area of the state; a county in the central area; and Gloucester County to represent the southern area of the state.  After each county is selected, the commissioner, in collaboration with the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden, would select a maximum of 10 schools within each county to participate in the pilot program. NJSBA supports the bill.

Easing Substitute Teacher Requirements  S-2832/A-5295 allows college students who have accumulated at least 30 college credits (sophomores and beyond) and are at least 20 years old to serve as substitute teachers up until June 30, 2023. The current standard is 60 credits (juniors and beyond). Under the bill, NJDOE would provide a final report by no later than June 30, 2024 as to whether the 30-credit standard should be allowed to continue. Additionally, the bill increases the coverage provided by substitute teachers by extending the amount of time those individuals may teach in the same classroom during public health emergencies. NJSBA was able to have language inserted clarifying school districts may establish additional criteria for substitute teachers within their district. NJSBA supports the bill.

Passed by the General Assembly

Renewable and Efficient Energy Financing Program  A-1976 establishes the Renewable and Efficient Energy Financing Program, in which school districts would be eligible to participate. The program would be funded at up to $20 million annually. Improvements that would qualify for funding through the program would include insulation; storm windows or doors; caulking, weather-stripping, or other window and door system modifications or improvements that reduce energy consumption. NJSBA supports this bill.

Alleviating Learning Loss Grant Program  A-5147 would establish the “Alleviating Learning Loss in New Jersey Grant Program” in the NJDOE to assist public schools in establishing or expanding certain educational programs to address learning loss in students. The grant program would provide funds to school districts, charter schools, and renaissance schools for the creation or expansion of summer learning programs during the summer of 2021 and other student support programs during the 2021-2022 school year to mitigate student learning loss resulting from the pandemic. NJSBA supports the bill. 

Assessment Waiver  A-5374 directs the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) to formally request a waiver of student academic assessment requirements from the federal government for the 2020-2021 school year. Currently, the assessments have been delayed until April. The NJDOE is already actively pursuing a waiver from the administration of assessments this spring. NJSBA supports the bill as well as the department’s waiver request.

Passed by the Senate

Depression Screenings for Students S-2259/A-970 establishes a “Mental Health Screening in Schools Grant Program” in NJDOE. School districts would be able to apply for funding and resources to implement depression screening programs in order to identify students in the grades seven through 12 who are at risk of depression. Grant recipients would administer annual screenings for depression to students in those grades. The bill places a variety of conditions upon any school districts receiving a grant under the program, including assurances that student privacy will be protected and that parental consent be obtained prior to administering a screening on a student. The bill appropriates $1 million towards the program.

This legislation previously required all boards of education to ensure that each student in grades seven through 12 receives an annual screening for depression. However, the bill was amended just before receiving final legislative approval to create this grant program instead of establishing a screening mandate. NJSBA supports this revised approach.

Concussion Protocols  Under S-225, student athletes who have sustained a concussion would be prohibited from returning to competition until they have returned to regular school activities and are symptom-free. The return of the student athlete or cheerleader would be required to be in accordance with the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) graduated, six-step “Return to Play Progression” recommendations. NJSBA supports the bill.

Student Tardiness  S-311 prohibits a school district from denying admittance to a student due to tardiness or violation of a dress code or school uniform policy. NJSBA supports the intent of S-311 but requested clarifying language to address the issue of discipline if a student fails to follow the dress code. NJSBA will support the bill with the amendment.

Sending District Representation  S-2166 provides certain sending school districts one nonvoting advisory representative on a receiving school district’s board of education. The additional member will be a member of the board of education of the sending district who will be designated annually by that board.  The NJSBA, in accordance with its advocacy policy approved at the Spring 2020 Delegate Assembly, successfully secured amendments to ensure that a sending representative will always have the ability to speak at receiving board meetings and will have the ability to vote where sending representation is not the majority of the receiving board.  NJSBA supports the bill.

Mental Health and Security Staff on School Report Card  S-2811 requires the school’s annual report card, which provides information to parents and taxpayers, to include information concerning the number of school psychologists and security personnel employed by each school district. The bill was amended to include other kinds of school-based mental health professionals. The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration. NJSBA is monitoring the bill.

Special Ed Services for 21+ Students S-3434  This bill would extend the age eligibility for special education and related services by requiring boards of education to provide the services included in a student’s individualized education program (IEP) for those who reach the age of 21 during the 2020-2021 school year, the 2021-2022 school year, and the 2022-2023 school year.

During committee deliberations, while supporting its intent, NJSBA raised several concerns about the bill. However, those concerns have now been mitigated because the initiative will be funded through federal funds provided from the recent stimulus packages.  Furthermore, any remaining expenses of local districts will be paid for by the state through the Property Tax Relief Fund.

Break in Legislative Action  The Legislature will now take its customary “budget break” until the beginning of May. During this period, the Legislature generally suspends movement on pending legislation while it deliberates the governor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning in July.

Hearings on individual department and agency budgets will commence with the state treasurer appearing before the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees on April 6 and April 7. The Acting Commissioner of Education will appear before the Senate on Thursday, April 8, and the Assembly on Monday, May 10.