A decade ago, a driving force behind school-municipal communication was the annual school budget. The local board of education needed the governing body to understand the school budget — and the governing body required such information — in the event that voters rejected the proposed school tax levy. A defeat at the polls triggered municipal review of the proposed budget and possible levy and expenditure reductions.

Today, as a result of a 2012 law, only 14 of the state’s 581 school districts still place their budgets on the ballot. But even without the school budget election as a major impetus, sound policy demands ongoing communication about the education of our state’s 1.4 million public school students, a large and, without a doubt, critical government service.

Recognizing this fact, the leaders of the New Jersey School Boards Association and the New Jersey State League of Municipalities pledged continued cooperation statewide and locally in a joint letter issued in 2014:

Today, the mutual concerns of schools and surrounding communities, ranging from school safety and security, to energy costs and preserving critical programs in the face of limited resources, will necessitate even more cooperation. …we are exploring new ways to move forward for the benefit of our members and the taxpayers they serve.

Since then, the League and NJSBA have sponsored panel discussions at their annual conferences, during which school and municipal leaders explore best practices in a variety of areas: shared services (2014); strategies to work within the 2 percent tax levy cap (2015); energy savings (2016); children’s health and nutrition (2017), and school security (2018). These sessions also gave NJSBA the opportunity to discuss its research on these and related issues.
Three of NJSBA’s most recent reports should be of keen interest to municipal leaders, not just as interested observers, but also as participants in shaping the services we provide to our communities’ children.

Serving the Career-Focused Learner: An Economic Necessity

Ask a real estate agent what makes a community desirable and, undoubtedly, he or she will put public school quality high on the list.
But too often, the assessment of school quality over-relies on the same criteria: the percentage of graduates entering four-year colleges right after high school; average SAT scores, and even the number of students accepted to Ivy League and other highly competitive universities.

New Jersey’s public schools, as a whole, do well in these categories when compared to other states. However, we have to broaden our perception of educational success. For too long the focus on college admissions has come at the expense of the career-focused learner — limiting opportunities, giving parents and other taxpayers the wrong impression of academic success, and endangering our state’s economic future.

In a May 2018 article posted on Bloomberg.com, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg described the situation succinctly:

One side thinks that every student should get an acceptance letter from a four-year college. The other argues that college is overrated and that we should focus on preparing young people for well-paid careers that don’t require a four-year education. The truth is that this isn’t an either/or situation. We need to do both: put more focus on college and careers, so students have a real choice.

Almost one-third of new job openings require a skill of some sort — not a bachelor’s degree. And in many cases, employers are struggling to fill these jobs, which hurts economic growth.

NJSBA’s October 2018 report, Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner, echoed Bloomberg’s assessment of the employment picture:
Business groups report that New Jersey has 44,000 vacant “middle-skills” jobs, which the Harvard Business School describes as “those that require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.” There is a disconnect between the skills that are being taught in schools, and the skills required in many entry-level positions.

The Task Force on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner, which authored the report, was the brainchild of NJSBA President Daniel T. Sinclair. The 20-member study group included local school officials and representatives of business and industry, workforce development and higher education. It challenged the perception that the path to success invariably requires attendance at a four-year college.

Its 69 recommendations address the skills needed in today’s job market; communication and collaboration among school districts, community colleges, state and local government, and business, industry and labor; educational programming that reflects economic realities and exposes students to the full array of post-high school options; teacher preparation and certification; student assessments and graduation requirements, and funding.

Existing programs cannot meet current demand for CTE. For example, in the fall of 2017, the director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational Technical Schools told a legislative hearing that, “of the nearly 30,000 students who applied this year to attend a [county] vocational school, only a little more than 12,000 could be accepted due to space constraints.”

The comprehensive high schools — i.e., those operated by K-12 or regional school districts — can help fill that gap, according to the NJSBA task force. But enabling them to do so will require not only state and federal support, but the formation of partnerships to develop resources and explore alternative funding. One task force recommendation involves public-private partnerships in which municipal officials could play a key role, along with school officials, business leaders, and representatives of local economic or industrial boards.

NJSBA’s report on Educational Opportunities for the Non-College-Bound Learner (118 pages) can be accessed here.

School Security and Student Safety

At the 2018 NJLM conference, the New Jersey School Boards Association discussed its new school security report, which includes 15 recommendations addressing:

  • Planning, Response and Recovery
  • Security Personnel
  • Communication, Notification and Detection
  • Cybersecurity
  • Physical Security and Building Access
  • Funding
  • Election Day Security

Municipal government, particularly local law enforcement, is a key element in providing a safe environment for our students through agreements between schools and law enforcement agencies, emergency planning, and shared notification systems.

Security personnel is a topic of particular note. NJSBA’s report addresses the employment of both School Resource Officers (SROs), active duty police officers who receive special training in working with students in a school environment, and Class III Special Law Enforcement Officers, a category established by statute in 2016. Class III officers are retired law enforcement personnel, who also receive training in working with students and can present a cost-effective alternative to the employment of SROs.

NJSBA’s newest security report builds upon its 2014 study, What Makes Schools Safe?, which remains a viable source of information. To access NJSBA’s 2018 and 2014 reports visit www.njsba.org/schoolsecurity2018 and www.njsba.org/schoolsecurity2014, respectively.
Student Achievement

In 2017, after almost two years of study, NJSBA issued a 107-page report, Student Achievement: Advancing Education for All Children. The report addresses issues ranging from the racial and economic achievement gap and early childhood education to the juvenile justice system and labor-management collaboration.

“The responsibility for the education and healthy development of school-age children must be shared by the entire community, including the board of education and the local governing body,” the study group found. “Obstacles to academic achievement exist not only in schools, but are also evident across the community, regardless of its demographics.”

Obstacles include poor behavioral choices, lack of after-school supervision, lack of social support systems including counseling, and lack of healthy food choices.

The Task Force on Student Achievement recommended that school districts involve municipal government, service organizations, and the faith-based community in a comprehensive plan to promote student achievement and healthy decision-making. Such efforts could be further advanced through regularly scheduled meetings between school and municipal officials and the appointment of liaisons between the board of education and governing body.

In addition, the student achievement report cites examples of community-wide efforts aimed at the healthy development of children: The Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance; and in South Brunswick, the Community Resource Team, the Healthy Communities-Healthy Youth Assets Initiative, and the Every Person Influences Children program.

Read the Final Report of NJSBA’s Task Force on Student Achievement.

Additional Research

NJSBA’s body of research also includes studies of under-funded state mandates, impediments to regionalization, student health and wellness, sustainability, and special education costs and services. All reports are available here.

Currently, the Association is engaged in a research project on the delivery of mental health services in the public schools.

We hope the NJSBA’s research projects can spark new avenues of communication and collaboration among New Jersey’s school districts and municipalities.

Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod is executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.