In 2014, school board members in New Jersey must contend with issues such as the school funding formula, superintendent salary caps and NJQSAC.
Over the past 25 years, there have been a series of significant public policy developments in Trenton and in Washington, DC that impact boards of education, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Knowing the backstory to many of these developments helps illuminate the present. Below are some key areas where changes occurred that have had – and continue to have – significant impact on local boards of education.
With the passage of the Quality Education Act of 1990 (QEA), the state made a fundamental shift in the calculation of how much financial aid the state would provide to local school districts ; that shift continues to impact schools today. The new law changed the general aid formula for elementary and secondary education from a guaranteed tax-base system, in which districts needed to guarantee a certain level of local tax levy support to receive state aid, to a foundation program, which seeks to estimate a district’s school aid needs by looking at the cost of educating each pupil. The foundation aid approach became the basis for calculating aid on a per-pupil basis and introduced the concept of attaching weighted adjustments to a base per pupil amount to reflect individual student needs. This approach is still included in the SFRA (School Funding Reform Act).
Another contentious aspect of the QEA was the addition of per-capita income as a component of a local district’s ability to cover the costs of their educational programs. Previously the assessed valuation of individual districts was the only measure of local wealth applied to the calculation of equalized aid. Today, this per capita income factor, along with property wealth, is a component of the school aid formula calculation.
The Charter School Program Act of 1995 ushered in the era of public charter schools in New Jersey. The law allowed the system where local districts which had students attending charter schools, rather than the regular public schools, were required to pay the charter schools 90 percent of their per-pupil basis per student.
Issues related to the charter application and approval process, the allocation of funds, including facilities aid, special education enrollment and accountability requirements remain controversial through the current day.
Chapter 267, effective August 24, 1991 eliminated tenure for school superintendents. At the time, it was hoped that this would pave the way for the elimination of tenure for all administrative staff. Opponents of the measure predicted a kind of superintendent “free-agency” that would drive up the cost of superintendent employment. Salaries did rise rapidly, and in 2011 a cap on superintendent salaries was imposed in New Jersey. Today, superintendent turnover is up, as several talented chief school administrators have left to take positions in other states. Many districts believe the caps restrict individual districts’ ability to pay competitive salaries to attract the best educational leaders for their districts.
School Insurance / ACES
A legislative initiative in 1983 permitted local school districts to enter in various self-insurance options for insurance needs such as workers’ compensation and property and casualty insurance. (This prompted the establishment of what is now the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group.) Since that time more than 80 percent of the state’s boards of education have taken advantage of this law to reduce their insurance costs between 20 percent and 50 percent annually.
Since 1999, the Alliance for Competitive Energy Services (ACES) has procured electricity and natural gas at discounted prices for New Jersey schools. ACES, a statewide energy-buying cooperative sponsored by NJSBA, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators (NJASA) and the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials (NJASBO), has more than 400 member school districts. With such large participation and long-term experience come unmatched buying power and service. Over the past two years alone, ACES has delivered approximately $50 million in energy-supply savings to its member districts statewide.
New Jersey Quality School Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC) and School District Accountability
The New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum law of 2005 and the School District l Accountability Act of 2007 set the stage for new levels of monitoring and compliance at the local district level. Both bills were part of the increased focus on control of district operations with a focus on controlling spending and resource allocation.
Under NJQSAC each school district is required to provide an annual report to the New Jersey Department of Education on its progress in complying with the quality performance indicators. The quality performance indicators are the standards to be met in five key components of school district effectiveness: instructional and program; personnel; fiscal management; operations; and governance. Based on the district’s compliance with the indicators, the commissioner of education assesses district effectiveness and places the district on a performance continuum that will determine the type and level of oversight and technical assistance and support the district will receive.
In 2007, the state’s School District Accountability Act was signed into law. This multifaceted legislation impacted school boards/charter school trustees in a variety of ways, including the imposition of travel restrictions and even the ability of board members to have refreshments at meetings, trainings and conferences. The law even addressed the use of glossy paper in school district publications.
A key area of the law dramatically expanded board member/trustee training. NJSBA was designated as the provider for all of the mandated training courses. All board members and charter school trustees are now required to attend training in each of their first four years of board service, and thereafter the first year following re-election or re-appointment.
No Child Left Behind/ Common Core State Standards
In January 2001, President George W. Bush announced No Child Left Behind, his framework for bipartisan education reform. The new law focused on how to improve the performance of America’s elementary and secondary schools while at the same time ensuring that no child is trapped in a failing school.
The NCLB Act was designed to strengthen Title I accountability by requiring states to implement statewide accountability systems covering all public schools and students. These systems were to be based on challenging state standards in reading and mathematics, annual testing for all students in grades 3-8, and annual statewide progress objectives ensuring that all groups of students reach proficiency within 12 years. Assessment results and state progress objectives must be broken out by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability, and limited English proficiency to ensure that no group is left behind. School districts and schools failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward statewide proficiency goals were to be subject to improvement, corrective action, and restructuring measures aimed at getting them back on course to meet State standards.
Had New Jersey not applied for a waiver from NCLB in 2011, a large number of districts in our state might not have met AYP by the current year. This is a result of the design of the program, not the ineffectiveness of the majority of our public schools.
The Common Core State Standards, adopted in 2010, are the latest development in the effort to set academic goals for all students. They began as an initiative of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. New Jersey adopted the Common Core, which covers only mathematics and language arts, in 2010 as part of its regular updating of academic standards, a process that takes place every five years. Local entities can develop a curriculum that meets those standards. Despite the confusion surrounding their adoption and implementation, NJSBA has supported their adoption as essential to guaranteeing that our students are college and career-ready.
November Board Elections
A notable development occurred in December 2011 when legislation was introduced to allow local boards of election to move their elections to November. Communities that switched to November school board elections no longer vote on their school districts’ proposed base budget as long as it remains under the state’s 2-percent tax levy cap.
Passed in January 2012, the response was swift. The overwhelming majority of New Jersey districts hold elections in November. Currently only 26 New Jersey districts still conduct elections in April. The implications of this sweeping change are only beginning to be felt, as board members cope with the difficulties of running a non-partisan campaign during the general election, which is dominated by partisan politics.
Throughout the long history of NJSBA, the state’s local board members have always shown great resolve and resourcefulness through times of great change. No doubt that will continue for the Association’s next hundred years.