Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) highlighted recent legislative developments and answered numerous questions at the New Jersey School Boards Association’s Legislative Committee meeting Sept. 17.

The virtual meeting, which was moderated by Jonathan Pushman, NJSBA’s director of governmental relations, drew dozens of attendees, including President Irene LeFebvre, Executive Director Dr. Timothy Purnell, Association officers and school board members from throughout the state.

LeFebvre welcomed attendees and mentioned how much she is looking forward to Workshop 2022, Oct. 24-26 at the Atlantic City Convention Center. She also said the Association is pleased to have Purnell as its leader. “Tim’s personal qualities are just as impressive as his resume,” she said. “He is as friendly as he is professional. He is both knowledgeable and a quick learner. And he actively seeks the input of board members as he continues his onboarding process.”

Purnell shared how in his research in joining the Association, he found a letter from 1913 that was written by a group of New Jersey board of education members who urged their peers to form a statewide organization for school board members. The letter made the case that there needed to be an intelligent, powerful organization “composed of those who are close to the voters and taxpayers in the state.” Such an organization the letter said, “could go before the Legislature or appeal to the State Department and be sure of a respectful hearing and not be ignored.”

The following year, state lawmakers approved the formation of the New Jersey School Boards Association,” Purnell said, noting that Association staff has done exactly what the letter envisioned: advocated on behalf of school board members to promote student achievement and the efficient operation of schools.

“We have vigorously represented the concerns of boards of education before the Legislature, in courts and in courts of public opinion,” Purnell said. “Today, we meet once again to learn how we can advocate best for New Jersey’s schools.” He added it was an honor to have Coughlin join the meeting as a guest speaker, and he thanked Pushman and the Association’s governmental relations staff, as well as Dr. Karen Cortellino, vice president for legislation and resolutions, for their hard work in organizing the meeting.

After calling the meeting to order, Cortellino noted that Coughlin’s first stint in public office was as a member of the South Amboy Board of Education, which he served from 1983 to 1987. He went on to serve as a South Amboy councilman from 1987 to 1993 and as an Edison municipal court judge from 2005 to 2009 before being elected to the Assembly in 2010. He has served as speaker since 2018.

The SDA Bill, Later Start Times and More

In his opening remarks, Coughlin called serving on a local board of education “the toughest job I had,” noting that “every family is their own lobbying group” and “every family cares deeply about how children get educated.”

He also expressed optimism about the future, noting that “it feels like we are coming out of the pandemic, and it feels like we are getting back to a sense of normalcy,” which includes schools. With that said, he observed that there is a lot of ground to make up as students fell behind when schools were closed to in-person learning.

Coughlin highlighted some of the provisions in the most recent budget. “I think we passed a terrific budget, and it’s terrific for taxpayers,” he said. The budget has the highest school funding inclusion for any New Jersey budget ever, he said.

One of the topics he spoke about at length was the Schools Development Authority, which received $1.9 billion under the fiscal year 2023 budget for school facilities projects, emergent needs, and capital maintenance, including $1.55 billion for SDA districts and $350 million for all other districts.

Legislators are looking at ways to help the SDA be more efficient, he said. He noted that the SDA is currently funded through bonding, with every SDA employee’s salary paid back over 30 years with interest. It seems to be a “preposterous” way of managing finances, he said.

Coughlin is the primary sponsor for bill A-4496, which revises various provisions of law governing construction of school facilities projects and operations of the SDA. “One of the things the bill includes is to move the $23 million it costs to fund the agency off the bonding mechanism and back onto regular funding,” he said. “That would free $23 million more to spend on school projects.” The bill also seeks to streamline school construction and design processes with the purpose of saving money, he said. He added, “I suspect this bill will undergo some changes, refinements and improvements.”

Another bill he is a primary sponsor of is A-3816/S-2462, which would require all high schools to start at 8:30 a.m. or later – a proposal that some board members said would pose logistical challenges while also boosting costs.

But Coughlin was unfazed in saying later start times is the right thing to do.

“Study after study will tell you students perform better when they get rest,” he said. “The truth is they need more sleep – and we can change that.”

He recognized the change would impose a burden on school districts, which is why the bill, which has not moved in either house, would not be effective until the 2024-2025 school year. “In my view, it is an absolute no brainer,” he said. “Students will perform better, they will succeed and we will be better off as a state because of it.”

Coughlin also highlighted other topics, including the need to make mental health more available to children. “Children are too important and too valuable to have them struggle to find services,” he said.

As School Board Notes reported Sept. 13, Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed into law two measures designed to combat hunger and food insecurity by expanding access to school meals. Both bills were part of a 10-bill package spearheaded by Coughlin to expand meal programs for working-class families, seniors and disabled residents.

It’s a topic he’ll continue to focus on, he said.

“My goal is to make sure every student in the state of New Jersey who needs food assistance, who needs breakfast and lunch gets it,” he said. There is often a stigma attached with getting free lunch, which could be removed if it were made more inclusive, he said. He added that even students in affluent communities can struggle in getting enough food to eat.

He also noted his desire to make the history of Sept. 11 part of the established curriculum and his concern over premium increases in the School Employees’ Health Benefits Program and State Health Benefits Program, which NJSBA has opposed.

Coughlin expressed concern that health insurance costs are increasing so much, but he does not think they should be reduced by using American Rescue Plan funds. “Unless you’re going to guarantee doing that year after year, it only creates a greater hole in years to come,” he said. “It’s time to solve the issues rather than artificially reducing costs for a one-year term … we don’t have an infinite supply of American Rescue Plan funds.”

Drawing on input from board members, Pushman asked Coughlin a number of questions, including how he feels about expanding the use of remote instruction in times of an emergency, on Election Day or when there is inclement weather.

Snow days have a certain charm, Coughlin said, so he’s not sure he wants to give them up. But what districts learned about remote instruction during the pandemic seems to offer the possibility to use that knowledge moving forward, he said. “But I’m of the staunch belief that having students in the classroom with teachers is the way to go, and so while we will look at that and it may have limited applications, I’m not sure it has broad applications,” he said.

Legislative Update

John Burns, senior legislative counsel; and Jesse Young, legislative advocate, provided attendees with an update on recent enactments and pending legislation.

They highlighted bills related to school security, academics and school climate, transportation and school meal expansion.

P.L.2022, c.83 requires any district with a high school to establish a “threat assessment team” by the 2023-2024 school year. The New Jersey Department of Education is currently rolling out training to districts to help them navigate requirements.

Regarding academics and school climate, they noted that as a result of P.L.2022, c.60, students in the class of 2023 are waived from graduation assessment requirements. The NJGPA that they took in March 2022 will be considered a “field test,” and they are not required to pass any of the alternate assessments (e.g., SAT, ACT) or complete a portfolio appeal.

As a result of HIB policy changes in P.L.2021, c.338, districts must incorporate NJDOE’s reporting forms – the HIB 338 forms – into their HIB policies. There is one form for local educational agency personnel and a separate form for reporting by families and caregivers.

Other bills they reviewed included the Electric School Bus Grant Program (P.L.2022, c.86), which is a $45 million, three-year grant program to help the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection determine the reliability and cost effectiveness of replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric school buses; and Temporary Extension of School Bus Service Life (P.L.2022, c.41), which extends, for the 2022-2023 school year only, the service life of school buses by one year.

Burns and Young also provided some insights on the state budget and reviewed some of the bills on the governor’s desk and pending legislation.

Mark your calendar for the next Legislative Committee meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 10.

To view the full text of any of the bills summarized above, please visit the New Jersey Legislature’s website.