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New Wording, New Funding to Keep Anti-Bullying On the Books

Saving a law that many see as critical to education in New Jersey.

With the clock ticking, the lead sponsor of New Jersey's anti-bullying law said she is close to filing new language -- and finding new money -- that will help the wide-ranging policy pass constitutional muster.

State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) said she plans to file the new language on Monday, after final conversations with other sponsors, as well as with Gov. Chris Christie's office.

The timing of the changes -- from subtle to substantial -- is critical. The current law could be voided in the next month, following a ruling by the state's Council on Local Mandates that the measure violated a constitutional prohibition against unfunded mandates.

Huttle said yesterday that the changes would include wording in the law's preamble saying that combating bullying in schools is part of the state's constitutional responsibility to provide a "thorough and efficient" system of public education,.

In addition, she said new money would be made available in the budget to help districts meet the needs of the law, a key issue raised in the council's decision on behalf of a small Warren County district -- which balked at paying for anti-bullying personnel out of its own pocket.

The final change would be the creation of a new commission, she said, to provide guidance to districts as they implement the law.

"I hope that's enough, I hope so," Huttle said in an interview yesterday. "I don't want to go back to square one on this."

In addition, Gov. Chris Christie's fiscal 2013 budget includes $158,000 for two anti-bullying specialists in the state Department of Education, a state spokesman confirmed.

The legislature has until March 27 to implement the changes. The council gave it until then before it published its opinion that would rule the existing law null and void. The Assembly's next -- and last -- voting session before then is April 15, meaning it must move quickly if it is to get through the required committees.

"It has to be next week [filing] if we are to do this by the 27th," Huttle said.

The assemblywoman did not rule out further changes after meeting with the governor's counsel this week. "I don't want to put something out there and have the governor veto it," she said.

Still, whether that is enough to satisfy the council’s ruling -- and protect the measure from further challenges -- is not certain.

For instance, while Huttle said money would be made available to districts this year through a Bullying Prevention Fund, she said it would not be a large sum and would not go to every district. She said districts would have to apply after exhausting other options.

She also did not say how much would be in it, only that it would come from "excess" funds in the state education department. She said the new language would also provide tax credits for private contributions to the fund.

The state Department of Education spokesman, Justin Barra, said late yesterday that no money was currently budgeted for anti-bullying. He did confirm the two new department positions proposed in Christie's budget for next year to help coordinate anti-bullying training for districts.

The district challenging the law, Allamuchy Township, maintained before the state council that the law required its schools to spend as much as $20,000 in additional training and staffing.

The law demands every school have an anti-bullying coordinator to serve as the point person for complaints and investigations. It also has strict requirements for how and how quickly complaints are to be investigated

The state's School Boards Association this week completed a survey of local superintendents and business administrators as to what they have spent in staff and programs to meet the law. Spokesman Frank Belluscio said a total dollar figure has yet to be compiled from the respondents, representing at least a third of all districts.

"But one thing they said overwhelmingly was they believe the law should be saved, either with additional funds or reduced requirements," Belluscio said. "Only a very small fraction said he law should expire."

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