Over the last week, the General Assembly advanced legislation that would grant school districts relief from their periodic reviews under the N.J. Quality Single Accountability Continuum, otherwise known as NJQSAC. According to the sponsor of the legislation, the postponements established under the bill are intended to allow school districts and the N.J. Department of Education to focus additional resources on addressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Regulatory relief during the health care emergency will allow our school leaders to focus precious time and attention on meeting the challenges of COVID-19,” said Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “The NJSBA strongly supports A-4975. It is a common sense measure that helps districts allocate resources to save lives and safeguard the health of children.”

On Thursday, Nov. 12, the Assembly Appropriations Committee advanced A-4975.  As released by the committee, the bill would have granted districts deemed “high performing” in their most recent NJQSAC review, and which are scheduled for a comprehensive review in the 2020-2021 school year (“Cohort 2”), a one-year postponement until 2021-2022. A “high performing district” is one that is found to satisfy 80% to 100% of the quality performance indicators in each of the five key components of school district effectiveness.

Cohort 2 districts that did not receive a high performing designation in their most recent review will still undergo a comprehensive review this year, “except that such a district may postpone its comprehensive review until the 2021-2022 school year if the district provides written notification to the Commissioner of Education that it is not able to complete the review due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.” If such a district chooses to postpone its comprehensive review, then the district would undergo its next following comprehensive review as if the postponement had not occurred.

The Assembly was scheduled to take a floor vote on A-4975 at its Monday voting session. Instead, the bill was amended to provide even more relief to certain districts.  As amended, rather than a one-year delay, high performing Cohort 2 districts would be granted a postponement until their next scheduled comprehensive QSAC review during the 2023-2024 school year.

In May 2020, the NJSBA issued Searching for a New Normal: A Special Report on the Reopening of New Jersey’s Schools. In that report, the NJSBA recommended that districts be given the financial and regulatory flexibility they need by suspending or revising NJQSAC so that districts are not penalized for taking actions necessary to address the pandemic. That same month, the NJDOE provided limited relief to districts by suspending those indicators of NJQSAC that required in-person inspection or interaction.

In August 2020, with districts trying to meet the challenges of safely reopening their schools, the NJSBA issued a second report, Choosing the Best ‘Road Back’ for Our Children. In that report, the NJSBA renewed its call for further NJQSAC relief during the pandemic.  A-4975 provides districts with that needed relief while continuing the important collaboration between local districts and the NJDOE to ensure that all children are provided with a thorough and efficient education during these unprecedented times.

A copy of the NJSBA’s position statement supporting the bill can be found here.

This is not the first time during the public health emergency that the Legislature has advanced legislation that would provide NJQSAC relief. Earlier this year, both houses approved A-4006/S-3187 and sent it to the governor. In mid-October, Gov. Murphy issued an absolute veto of the bill.  While commending the bill’s sponsors for acknowledging the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented, the governor stated that “in seeking to deliver a degree of immediate relief to certain school districts, this bill imposes a substantial burden on the New Jersey Department of Education.” He cited concerns that NJQSAC postponement would create a backlog for the NJDOE and double the number of reviews it would typically conduct in a given school year. In addition, because the bill would have required any affected districts to undergo their next comprehensive NJQSAC review as if the postponement had not occurred, it would also result in some districts undergoing two reviews in three years. He called that scenario “redundant and unnecessary” at a time when districts are focusing resources on COVID-19 response measures.

Education Measures Sent to Governor

Both the Senate and General Assembly convened for voting sessions on Monday, Nov. 16. The following measures have received final legislative approval and are now on the governor’s desk:

School Audit Delay S-3043/A-4603 extends the deadline for the completion of the annual audit of the 2019-2020 school fiscal year until Jan. 31, 2021 and its submission to the commissioner until Feb. 5, 2021.  The bill also provides that a school district is required to submit the Audit Summary for the 2019-2020 school year to the N.J. Department of Education by Jan. 4, 2021.

Under current law, the board of education of every school district must have an annual audit of the district’s accounts and financial transactions completed not later than five months after the June 30 end of the school year.  A report of the annual audit is filed by the accountant with the board of education, and within five days thereafter, with the commissioner of education.

According to the bill statement, this extension is necessary as a result of COVID–19.  School districts have limited the number of persons who may enter school buildings due to COVID-19, which creates a difficulty since the annual audit is conducted on-site at the district. Additionally, the accounting firms that conduct school district audits also conduct audits of municipalities.  The Division of Local Government Services moved the date for the filing of calendar year 2019 municipal audits from June 30, 2020 to September 30, 2020 as a result of COVID-19.  This change in schedule has further impacted the ability of accountants to complete the audits of school districts in accordance with the current statutory requirements.

Chapter 44 AmendmentsA-4905/S-3045 allows health insurers to provide certain health care benefit plans to local boards of education and eligible employers who do not participate in the School Employees Health Benefits Plan (SEHBP), and modifies employee contributions for the New Jersey Educators Health Plan (NJEHP) and its equivalent. This measure amends P.L.2020, c.44, the school employees’ health benefits reform legislation signed this past summer. Commonly referred to as “Chapter 44,” that law requires districts to offer new health benefits plans to employees and alters the amount that employees who select the new plans must contribute to their insurance coverage. This legislation clarifies that the salary on which an employee’s contribution is based is capped at $125,000. In other words, an employee with a salary greater than $125,000 and who selects the NJEHP, would pay the same amount towards his or her health benefits as an individual making $125,000. This amendment is consistent with the original intent of the legislation and is intended to alleviate confusion and ensure consistent application in the field as districts continue to implement the new law.

The bill also addresses concerns among some private insurance carriers that they are not permitted to offer the NJEHP due to conflicts with existing N.J. Department of Banking and Insurance (DOBI) regulations. S-3045 allows health insurance companies to provide health care benefit plans that are equivalent to the NJEHP, notwithstanding the provisions of any other law, rule, or regulation, including any regulation of DOBI, to the contrary. This provision also applies to the Garden State Health Plan, which must be established by July 2021.

Upon passage, the sponsors issued the following statement: “In order to provide equal access to health coverage, this bill clarifies that New Jersey boards of education and other qualified employers are eligible for equivalent health coverage plans as those offered to school boards that participate in the SEHBP. Many districts choose not to participate in the state program for various reasons, so this legislation will give them the option to access similar plans even if they are not an SEHBP participant. The measure also ensures that SEHBP members will not have to pay excessive premiums if they are a high earner by capping their contribution at the amount required of educators earning $125,000.”

Amistad CommissionS-1028/A-3601 amends the statute that created the Amistad Commission to provide that the commission is located in but not of the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE), rather than within the Department of State.  The bill requires the commission to appoint an executive director who is qualified to perform the duties of the office.

The Amistad Commission was created by law in 2002 to coordinate educational and other programs on slavery in America and African-American history.  Under the original statute, the Amistad Commission was established in the executive branch and located within the Department of State.  In June 2011, Gov. Chris Christie issued a reorganization plan that transferred the Amistad Commission from the Department of State to the NJDOE to improve efficiency.

The bill would require all boards of education to include instruction that infuses into all courses about the United States, the centuries of accomplishments by African Americans in the building and development of America. The instruction must enable students to know and understand the nation’s heritage of slavery and freedom and the contributions of African Americans to all areas of American society throughout history.  Courses must also emphasize the personal responsibility of each citizen to fight racism and hatred and to uphold the national ideals of freedom and justice.  The bill directs the NJDOE to work with the Amistad Commission to ensure that the assessment tools for New Jersey schools are inclusive of the curricular requirements established under the bill.

NJSBA supports the measure.

Senate Voting Session

The Senate also approved the following school-related measure:

Budget FlexibilityS-2691 authorizes school districts to maintain a surplus at 4% for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. Under current law a school district, other than a county vocational school district, may only maintain a surplus of 2%. Specifically, the bill provides that, due to the financial impacts of COVID-19, a school district may maintain for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years an undesignated general fund balance of 4% of the budgeted general fund for the prebudget year. In addition, the use or transfer of those funds between line items and program categories shall not require the approval of the commissioner of education.

NJSBA supports the legislation, which is part of the Association’s pandemic advocacy agenda.  The bill’s Assembly counterpart, A-4310, has received committee approval and is primed for a floor vote.

Assembly Voting Session

The full General Assembly also approved the following school-related bill, which has to be taken up by the Senate:

Addressing School Nurse ShortageA-4544 permits a retired school nurse to return to employment during the COVID-19 public health emergency and state of emergency without having to re-enroll in the pension system. The total period of re-employment with any individual board of education is not to exceed a two-year period, unless so approved by the commissioner of education as being in the best interests of the school district. Such a nurse would be able to collect a salary in addition to his or her pension allowance. The bill mirrors a provision in existing law concerning the hiring of retired superintendents on an interim basis.

Official NJSBA policy holds to the belief that school districts should have the flexibility to secure qualified staff for vacancies, including the hiring of retirees. And the hiring of retirees should be permitted particularly when attempting to fill positions of critical need. Therefore, NJSBA supports the legislation.