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Christie Open to Ways to Remedy Anti-Bullying Setback

Money may be found to satisfy state ruling that portions of the landmark law are an unfunded mandate.

Gov. Chris Christie and leading legislators yesterday vowed to address a state ruling that says sections of New Jersey's landmark anti-bullying law are an unfunded mandate -- without discounting the idea of supplying districts with additional money.

Christie said he still needed to review Friday's decision of the state's Council on Local Mandates that the law imposed an unconstitutional mandate on districts in not providing adequate funding.

But he vowed a remedy would be found that would keep the law "effective."

"We need to fix it by either getting rid of things in the law that impose that unfunded mandate or by funding that unfunded mandate. I am willing to discuss that with the legislature from both sides," Christie said when asked about the decision in a morning press conference.

"Would removing those portions that are an unfunded mandate eviscerate the bill?" he said. "If that is the case, perhaps we can talk about ways that maybe could fund it."

How much money that would be or whether there are other ways to address the council's ruling remained an open discussion yesterday, with legislators and advocates only starting to digest the decision.

"We're swinging into action," said Steven Goldstein, director of Garden State Equality, the gay rights group that led the campaign for the bill.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the chief sponsor in the lower house, said she was more inclined to seek funding than to dive back into the law itself. The council essentially gave the state 60 days to address its concerns. The council said it would issue its formal ruling after that period, marking those sections of the law that would no longer be in effect.

"If we're talking about revisiting the whole bill, with all the pressures that are out there now, I think that will be a little difficult," said Vainieri Huttle.

"I want to work with what we have," she said yesterday. "I don't want to gut this bill."

The main points in the law that are likely to draw the most attention are those that require specific staff responsibilities or programs. The Allamuchy School District brought the complaint to the council, contending that the law had required it to spend about $20,000 in two schools for additional staff stipends and training.

How much that would cost statewide is difficult to determine. Simply extrapolating Allamuchy's staffing costs comes to $10 million to $15 million, but a staff analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services a year ago said it could not put a price tag on the law, since each district would handle the responsibilities differently.

But it predicted at the time that there would likely be additional costs for at least the anti-bullying specialists and a "school safety team" that are required in each school, made up of existing staff.

"Presumably, appointing such a staff member to serve as the anti-bullying specialist or on the school safety team would require additional compensation to be determined by the collective bargaining agreement," read the OLS analysis.

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