A little-know state council has found itself in the spotlight with its decision that New Jersey’s anti-bullying law represents an unfunded state mandate. The question now: How is the legislature going to fix the problem?
The Council on Local Mandates on Friday ruled that the new law laying out specific procedures and staffing in every school represented an unfunded requirement that is not permitted under the state constitution.
But the council gave the state a lot of latitude to address its concerns, saying the ruling would not go into effect until it filed its formal opinion in about 60 days. It all but implored Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature to take action in that time.
“It should be fixed, but that is the job of the legislature and the governor,” said John Sweeney, a former Superior Court judge who heads the panel.
Deliberations of the bipartisan, nine-member panel are more reminiscent of a local town council than a legal authority with final say. Over three hours, the council met in an otherwise quiet Statehouse and heard from lawyers for the state and representatives of the Allamuchy School District, which brought the complaint. Several times, council members bickered with each other over questioning and procedure.
In the end, the council voted 7-2 that provisions requiring anti-bullying specialists and training should have come with state funding for it to be legal. Allamuchy said the costs of such measures, including union-required stipends for the added duties, came to about $20,000 for the two-school district in Warren County.
One of the dissenting votes came from Sharon Weiner, an attorney from Morristown, who said it could be a matter for the state to simply provide some funding to help districts. A fund was created by the law to assist districts, but no money was ever appropriated for it.
“We are hoping that within 60 days the legislature gets the message that they need to provide some funding,” Weiner said.
But whether that happens or legislators find other means is the question. The chief Assembly sponsor of the new law issued a statement Friday that was critical, even dismissive, of the council and its decision.
“This rarely used, shadowy fourth branch of government voted behind closed doors to dismantle a law sponsored by two-thirds of the legislature and approved and signed into law by the governor,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).
Vainieri Huttle did not elaborate on what steps she would seek, but vowed that action was forthcoming. “Rest assured we will review the council’s decision thoroughly to find a way to make this law workable for everyone,” she said.
Others said they did not expect additional state money to be provided, at least not in the current state budget. But changes might be sought in the legislation itself to give districts some latitude and maybe provide some state resources to help in training and other provisions.
Among specific provisions that Allamuchy challenged were requirements for anti-bullying specialists and coordinators in every school and district, respectively, and for specific training for all school staff.
“I just think it needs to be clarified,” said Ilan Plawker, vice president of the State Board of Education, who has been outspoken on the issue and attended Friday’s hearing. “I really don’t think you need to change that much, just clarify how this can work.”
Plawker said also under discussion has been new language indicating that it is a constitutional right for students to be free from harassment in their schooling.
The state’s lawyers had maintained that the law was part of a “thorough and efficient” education as dictated by the constitution, and hence exempt from the council’s jurisdiction.
Whatever the remedy, Plawker also said the council’s offer of 60 days is not a wide window.
“It’s not a lot of time when you see how the legislative process works,” he said. “It will be fast and furious, if it is going to happen at all.”