Legislation signed into law on Aug. 27 will give New Jersey voters the final say on whether the state should borrow a half-billion dollars to finance various school district and county college capital projects.  Titled the “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act,” S-2293/A-3902(P.L.2018, c.119) would authorize the issuance of $500 million in general obligation bonds for the following purposes:

  • $350 million for county vocational school district career and technical education grants and for school security project grants;
  • $50 million for county college career and technical education (CTE) grants; and
  • $100 million for school district water infrastructure improvement grants.

While the bill passed the Legislature with broad, bipartisan support, Gov. Murphy did not approve the version that landed on his desk earlier this summer. In June, the Legislature voted to authorize the issuance of $1 billion in bonds, which would have been divided up as follows: $400 million for county vocational schools, $450 for school security enhancements at K-12 schools, $50 million for county colleges, and $100 million for water infrastructure projects.   Citing concerns over the state’s existing debt load, the governor conditionally vetoed the bill and slashed the borrowing capacity authorized under the legislation in half.

In his conditional veto statement on the measure, Gov. Murphy cited the state’s various unfunded liabilities (i.e., debt service, pension obligations, and public employee post-retirement medical benefits) as his rationale for reducing the Legislature’s proposed funding amount. “While I certainly endorse the priorities established in this bill, I also believe that their long-term fiscal implications must be carefully considered.  New Jersey already ranks in the top five states in the nation for tax-supported debt,” the governor wrote.  The Legislature unanimously adopted the governor’s recommendations in voting sessions held last Monday and the bill was signed into law later that day.  The measure will now be placed on the ballot at the November general election, where it will need a simple majority approval of the voters to go into effect.

If approved, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, in consultation with the state Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development, will be tasked with developing procedures for the review and approval of the CTE project grants. Applications will need to demonstrate how a proposed project will: increase the capacity of the district to offer CTE programs; prepare students for high demand technically skilled careers; and align with labor market demands or economic goals.  Priority for funding will be given to those county school districts that offer stackable credentials programs and those that enter into partnerships with county colleges or employers to provide technical training and education.  The grants will support 75 percent of an approved project’s cost, while the district will need to provide 25 percent in matching funds.

The commissioner, in collaboration with the N.J. Schools Development Authority (SDA), will also establish procedures for the review and approval, and eligibility criteria for, school security project grants.  The New Jersey Commissioner of Environmental Protection will have responsibility for administering the water infrastructure improvement grants.  Both of these grant programs will be fully funded by the state and require no local contribution.

The governor also recently signed into law the following measures impacting local school districts:

3-Point Seat Belts on School BusesA-4110/S-233(P.L.2018, c.118) requires that all new school buses be equipped with three-point lap and shoulder seat belts. Since 1992, school buses in New Jersey have been required to have seat belts, but only of the lap variety. The law goes into effect 180 days after receiving the governor’s signature and only applies to newly manufactured school buses. Therefore, it would not require the retrofitting of any school buses already in operation.

Opioid Overdose PreventionA-542/S-1830(P.L.2018, c.106) requires boards of education to develop a policy for the emergency administration of opioid antidotes to students and staff members. Such a policy will require high schools, and permit any other school, to maintain a supply of opioid antidotes and permit emergency administration of an opioid antidote by a school nurse or trained employee. The opioid antidotes must be accessible during regular school hours and during school-sponsored functions that take place on school grounds. A board of education may, at its discretion, make opioid antidotes accessible during school-sponsored functions that take place off school grounds. The law will also apply to charter and nonpublic schools. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) is directed to establish guidelines for school districts in developing their policies for the administration of opioid antidotes. The guidelines will require that each school nurse, and each employee designated by the board of education, receive training on standardized protocols for administering an opioid antidote to a student or staff member who experiences an opioid overdose.  The law takes effect on Dec. 1.

Conditional Vetoes The governor returned the following bills to the Legislature with recommended changes:

School Security Panic Alarms As approved by the Legislature in June, A-764/S-365, required that all public elementary and secondary schools be equipped with a panic alarm for use in a school security emergency such as a non-fire evacuation, lockdown, or active shooter situation. The panic alarm, which is to be inaudible within the school building, must be directly linked to law enforcement authorities and immediately transmit a signal or message to the authorities upon activation. The panic alarm must adhere to nationally recognized industry standards. In addition, the panic alarm must be installed solely by a person licensed to engage in the alarm business.  However, a school district may equip its elementary and secondary school buildings with an emergency mechanism that is an alternative to a panic alarm if the mechanism is approved by the NJDOE. The bill directs the state to reimburse school districts for the full cost of the panic alarms or alternative mechanism, including school districts that installed a panic alarm or alternative system prior to the bill’s effective date.

Entitled “Alyssa’s Law,” the legislation is named in honor of Alyssa Alhadeff, a 14-year-old student and former resident of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, who was killed on Feb. 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The version of the bill the Legislature sent to the governor required the state, through the Schools Development Authority, to cover the costs of the mandated security upgrades. In his veto message, the governor noted the lack of funds currently available at the SDA. However, since the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act, if approved by the voters, would include revenue for school security upgrades, he recommended this legislation be linked to that revenue source.

Further, the governor noted concerns with the varying costs and configurations of alarm systems. In order to maximize efficiency and economies of scale, he recommended the SDA be granted authority to oversee purchasing and installation of these systems.

Lastly, the governor recommended extending the bill’s effective date in order to accommodate the revised source of funding, which will require approval from the voters, to allow schools sufficient time to purchase and install the alarms.

To date, the legislature has yet to consider the governor’s conditional veto.

Urban Hope Act AmendmentsAs approved by the Legislature, A-4181/S-2722 would have required the superintendent of a renaissance school district to establish a common enrollment system that would require students to apply to public schools located in the district through a single application. All public schools located in the district, including schools operated by the district, charter schools, and renaissance school projects would have been required to participate. The bill also expanded the definition of urban campus area and clarified that employees of renaissance school projects are in state-administered retirement systems.

In his conditional veto, the governor deleted all of the bill’s components except for the provision applying the same rules of eligibility for state-administered retirement systems to teaching staff of renaissance schools as are applied to teaching staff at district and charter schools.