Senate Ed Approves Bill Approving Sup Cap, Chronic Absenteeism Measure & Legislation Requiring An Aide on School Buses Carrying Special Needs Students

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The Senate Education Committee moved several pieces of legislation forward at their February 7 hearing, including a bill that would require schools to address pockets of chronic absence among students, a measure requiring the State Board of Education to create a new computer science endorsement as well as a bill that seeks to eliminate the superintendent salary cap.  The body also approved legislation that would mandate placement of a student with addiction issues in a ‘recovery high school’ in the event that a medical professional determined that the placement was necessary.  NJPSA was on hand to advocate for school leaders throughout the hearing.

Chronic Absenteeism

The Committee moved legislation, S-447 (Allen / Ruiz),  which would require the Commissioner of Education to not only include data on chronic absenteeism and disciplinary suspensions on the School Report Card, but also require districts to develop a corrective action plan in the event the percentage of chronically absent students exceeds ten percent of the student population.

The Education Stakeholders, including NJPSA, vociferously advocated for several changes to the bill.  Among them was the elimination of a definition of chronic absenteeism that varied from the current regulatory definition as well as a provision that would have required districts to develop a special ‘team’ at the school level that would have required the inclusion of a parent for purposes of addressing absenteeism.  NJPSA, as well as fellow stakeholders raised student privacy and redundancy issues with the sponsors successfully. 

Interestingly, the bill is moving at the same time the Department of Education has tentatively indicated it intends to utilize chronic absenteeism as a metric for school performance and accountability purposes under federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requirements.  Under the proposal, the metric could account for up to 10 percent of the accountability system’s measurement process.  The bill’s changes vest the Department with the responsibility to develop a definition of chronic absence and to develop guidance for district who are required to develop a corrective action plan should their percentage of chronically absent students exceed 10 percent.

Superintendent Salary Cap

Also approved was legislation, S-504 (Ruiz/Sarlo), which would prohibit the NJDOE from regulating the maximum salary amount a school district may pay its superintendent of schools.  NJPSA in addition to NJASA, NJSBA, and GSC testified in support of the bill, while alerting the committee of current regulatory movement.

What makes the bill’s timing truly unique is recent regulatory action that seeks to keep the cap in place but amend the ranges and amount allowable under the code upwards.  NJPSA testified back in January on the regulatory package arguing that the cap was not necessary in light of existing controls like the 2 percent property tax cap as well as several other accountability measures and that the cap had had a deleterious impact o the structural soundness of schools (NJPSA Testifies On Superintendent Salary Cap, January 17, 2017).  The Association did acknowledge during the January testimony, however, that if the cap must remain in place at least the regulations were a step in the right direction. 

Textbooks for All

Additionally approved was a measure, S-2138 (Rice), that would require districts to ensure that every student enrolled in a class have access to a textbook.  NJPSA worked with the sponsor in a prior session to include digital books under the definition.

Computer Science Endorsement

In addition, legislation, S-2397 (Ruiz/Diegnan), was approved that would direct the State Board of Education to authorize a computer science education endorsement to instructional certificate.

NJPSA worked with the sponsor to seek several amendments that would vest the Board with the responsibility to determine what coursework would be appropriate for the endorsement rather than set the criteria within the legislation.  The Association will continue to work with the sponsors to address concerns related to grandfathering under the bill (the bill would allow individuals teaching computer science within 3 years of the establishment of the endorsement to be grandfathered).

Lead Reimbursement

Further, the committee approved S-2675 / A-4284 (Diegnan / Quijano / Benson / Muoio), which would provide that school districts may receive reimbursement for costs incurred on or after January 1, 2016 for testing school drinking water for lead.  NJPSA supports this measure. 

School Bus Aides

In addition, S-2757 (Turner / Ruiz), would require a minimum of one school bus aide for every 15 special needs students on a school bus.  NJPSA, in addition to ASA, SBA and GSC, expressed serious concern with the bill’s fiscal impact on districts. 

Recovery High School Students

Of deed concern was legislation, S-2950 (Lesniak / Ruiz), approved that would require sending districts to allow students to transfer to recovery high school alternative education program, provided the placement is considered clinically appropriate by alcohol and drug counselor.  NJPSA privately expressed to the sponsor that the legislation should also include an educational consideration for the student. 

Safe Zones for Students

Finally, the committee approved a resolution, SCR-134 (Gill / Vitale / Ruiz), that expresses the Legislature’s intent that school districts and public institutions of higher education continue to serve as safe zones and resource centers for students and families threatened by  immigration or discrimination; and that school districts and public institutions of higher education continue to protect the data and identities of undocumented students, family members, and school employees who may be adversely affected by future federal policies or executive action that results in the collection of personally identifiable information.  NJPSA supports the resolution.