On Tuesday, March 9, the Senate Education Committee met and approved the following bills:

School District Regionalization S-3488 establishes criteria for state-funded regionalization studies, increases flexibility on regionalization cost apportionment, bars any regionalization that would encourage segregation, and provides financial incentives for districts losing state aid because of declining enrollment to regionalize by extending the schedule for their Adjustment Aid cuts. S-3488 establishes an eight-year phase-out of Adjustment Aid — stretched out from the current four years — for districts participating in a LEAP (Local Efficiency Achievement Program) regionalization study that 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. This legislation represents a voluntary, incentive-based opportunity for districts to explore regionalization and determine if it would be beneficial to their students and their communities. The bill was approved by the Senate Committee and now heads to the full Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration. NJSBA supports the bill.

Special Ed Services for 21+ Students S-3434 requires boards of education to provide special education and related services to certain students exceeding the age of eligibility for special education and related services. This bill requires a board of education to temporarily provide special education and related services to certain students who exceed, or will exceed, the current age of eligibility for special education and related services in the 2020-2021 school year and the 2021-2022 school year. NJSBA, although supportive of the intent of the bill, raised concerns about the need for the bill given federal and state guidance concerning the importance of compensatory education during the pandemic, the lack of funding language in the bill, and concerns over the interplay between existing federal protections and the proposed protections in the bill. The bill was approved by the Senate Committee and now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Grade Retention Due to COVID S-3470 allows certain students to repeat a prior grade level during the 2021-2022 school year upon parental request.  This bill provides that for the 2021-2022 school year, a school district will permit a general education student enrolled in any of the grades kindergarten through 12 to repeat the grade level  provided that the parent, guardian, or other person having legal custody of the student submits a written request of grade retention to the superintendent of the school district on or before June 1, 2021. The superintendent of the district will have the discretion to approve or deny a written request of grade retention after June 1, 2021.   A request to have a grade repeated, based solely on concerns surrounding learning loss during the 2020-2021 school year shall be sufficient grounds for retaining in the same grade level during the next school year. NJSBA opposed the bill because it would make parental preference, rather than educational need, the primary criterion for retention.  Additionally, the bill contains no funding for the proposal. The bill was approved by the Senate Committee and now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Substance Abuse Screenings S-508 requires an annual substance use screening on each high school student provided by the school. Students screening positive will receive brief counseling and the screener will assist the student with referral to treatment options, if needed.  The Department of Human Services and the Department of Children and Families, using existing public and private training resources, will make available to school districts training for personnel.

Parents/guardians must be given prior written notice of the screening and an opportunity to opt the student out. Statements made by a student during a screening are considered confidential information and cannot be disclosed by a person receiving the statement to any other person without the prior written consent of the student and the student’s parent or guardian, except in cases of immediate medical emergency or if disclosure is otherwise required by state law.

A school district may opt out of the specific program required by the bill, if it is implementing an alternative screening program and provides to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) a detailed description of the alternative program. NJSBA has not taken a position and continues to monitor the bill, which has been referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Mental Health Task Force S-555 establishes a 16-member Student Mental Health Task Force. The task force, which will include a school board member, will study and make recommendations regarding the following:

  • Identifying public school students who experience depression, anxiety, stress, or other psychological or emotional tension, trauma, or disorder;
  • Evaluation/expansion of counseling programs and services available to students experiencing mental health difficulties, and other programs designed to address issues related to student mental health;
  • The relationship of student mental health to school safety and security;
  • The amount of funding needed for public schools to employ the appropriate staff and to establish new programs or expand existing programs necessary to address student mental health; and
  • An examination of other states which have implemented programs that have successfully addressed depression, anxiety, stress, or other psychological or emotional tension, trauma, or disorder among public school students and reduced the number of students experiencing such difficulties.

The task force will issue a final report of its findings and recommendations to the governor and Legislature no later than one year after its organizational meeting. NJSBA supports this bill.

Community Schools Pilot S-1857 establishes a five-year Community Schools Pilot Program. The program would be managed by an in-state nonprofit organization selected by NJDOE. That organization would provide group training sessions and information about community schools available to any district interested in establishing a community school. Additionally, the organization would be responsible for selecting up to 50 schools, including charter schools, that would receive direct assistance from a site coordinator assigned to the school.

NJDOE will select two outside entities to supervise the managing organization, including a financial firm that will annually audit the program and an independent entity to conduct an evaluation of the pilot program.

This program is anticipated to cost $26 million over the five-year period. Funding would be provided both through monies appropriated by the Legislature and private contributions. NJSBA supports this bill, which now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

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 representative of the sending district will be a nonvoting member of the receiving district board of education and will serve on the board of the receiving district in an advisory role.  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 which now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

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.