Sweeney Delivers Seven Bills That Take on Thorny Issues in NJ Education

As part of his ‘Path to Progress’ campaign, senate president presents proposals on school consolidation and special education

Credit: NJTV News
Senate President Steve Sweeney
Senate President Steve Sweeney’s education proposals took up just a few minutes in his presentation last week of 27 bills to be filed as part of his “Path to Progress” campaign.

But in seven of those bills the Senate president set the Democratic legislative agenda for education for the next few years, laying out his specific priorities concerning school consolidation and special education.

There are lots of pressing issues in New Jersey education, but Sweeney stuck his stake in the ground for trying to solve two of the thorniest — the plethora of school districts in the state, and the growing challenges many of them face in serving students with special needs.

Of course, whether Sweeney gets any of those bills approved and in what form are open questions. But the bills showed a strategy of taking on two hugely complex and difficult issues in slow and incremental steps — a few of them tried before.

Lots of questions

The following are the seven education bills Sweeney announced, along with his office’s verbatim summaries. The bills’ language has yet to be posted, leaving many questions and interpretations ahead.

Senate bill 3755: “Requires executive county superintendent of schools to establish consolidation plan to combine all school districts in county, other than preschool or kindergarten through grade 12 districts, into all-purpose regional schools districts.”

Summary: “The bill would require the consolidation of all school districts, other than PreK or kindergarten through grade 12 districts, into all-purpose regional school districts. Within the first 3 months, districts would develop their own consolidation plans. Any districts without a plan would have a plan developed for them by the executive county superintendent. All costs of the studies would be borne by the State. The study should take into account the feasibility of consolidation and any consequences of consolidation. Districts would then have 2 years to consolidate if approved by the commissioner, or 3 years if the commissioner does not and creates their own plan.”

This bill is essentially a restart of a process begun under former Gov. Jon Corzine and followed by former Gov. Chris Christie.

Long promised even before the “Path to Progress” campaign, school consolidation is, Sweeney said, a cornerstone in his reform plans for the state, for both financial and education gains.

He’s not the first to try, nor likely the last; school consolidation proposals date back more than a century in a state that — it may be hard to believe — once had more than 1,000 separate districts, double the number it has today.

It began under Corzine

Sweeney’s proposal is a repeat of that started under Corzine in the mid-2000s, requiring the state’s executive county superintendents to devise plans for regionalizing all districts that aren’t now kindergarten through 12th grade — essentially cutting the total number of districts in half.

That proposal stalled under Corzine when some counties and districts balked at the cost of the studies involved, let alone the actual moves, but Sweeney is hoping different times — and different financial strains — will give it new life. The proposal has also set some new deadlines, saying the first of the plans must be ready within three years.

Nonetheless, any such proposal ultimately faces a steep battle against home rule, not to mention the complexity of merging districts that have different enrollments, different debts and obligations, different labor contracts and different levels of wealth and property value.

Senate bill 3756: “Requires limited purpose regional school districts to coordinate with constituent districts regarding school calendar and curriculum.”

Summary: “This bill would require the board of education of a limited purpose regional school district to meet and work with constituent schools districts of the regional district to coordinate school calendars and ensure consistency in curriculum. This would be required to take place at least once a year.”

Looking for more coordination

The bill is a complement to the first, trying to move the state ahead in better coordinating elementary, middle and high schools within the same communities. Sweeney has maintained that is the core reason for his push to reorganize schools, more than even financial savings.

Senate bill 3757: “Establishes a pilot program in DOE for organization of county administrative school districts.”

Summary: “This bill would establish a pilot program for the organization of at most 5 county administrative school districts. The pilot program would be ongoing for 9 years. After 9 years, the commissioner would prepare a report for the Legislature and Governor with recommendations of the program.”

This one is trickier, planting the seed for the creation of large county-wide districts that could include dozens of communities. Sweeney has never said that is his ultimate aim, but has maintained there may be places where one superintendent and one business office could serve a wide swath of the state.

The questions about how this would happen are countless, but the proposal dates to Sweeney’s efforts a decade ago in his native Gloucester County to regionalize programs there, only to face fierce backlash.

Voluntary approach

He maintains it could still work, pointing to more rural counties like Salem County as possibilities. His office stresses it would be entirely voluntary for a county, although it’s less clear what would happen if one community within that county balks. And how exactly would the county-wide administration work, with each district facing disparate needs?

Senate bill 375: “Provides for direct State payment of cost of special education and related services for certain students.”

Summary: “This bill would create in but not of the Department of Education, the Office of High Needs Placement Funding. This office, along with the High Needs Placement Committee, would assume all extraordinary special education costs over $55,000. The State would assume the costs of each student above the $55,000 threshold. Extraordinary Special Education Aid would be eliminated within 2 years of the establishment of direct State funding. The Committee would also be charged with reviewing the program and providers.”

The first of Sweeney’s bills aimed specifically at special education, this one reprises a promise that Sweeney has made to help districts pay for the highest-cost special education needs.

Currently, the state pays for about half of those excess costs, at about $200 million in fiscal year 2020. While there are no precise projections, Sweeney has said the proposal would add another $200 million to the state’s annual responsibilities.

Interesting twists

His proposal has a couple of interesting twists, too. One would create an office outside of the state Department of Education to administer the funds, pulling that responsibility from the department that has handled it for decades. That same office would also oversee and review the outside programs driving much of the high costs, opening for comtentious debate how these schools are monitored and regulated.

Senate bill 3219: “Eliminates use of census-based funding of special education aid in school funding law.”

Summary: “This bill eliminates the use of the census-based methodology, and calculates State aid for special education based on the actual number of special education students included in the district’s resident enrollment.”

This is one bill not put up by Sweeney. It’s from state Sens. Robert Singer and Patrick Diegnan and dates back at least a year. And it may be the most complicated and sweeping of all.

In short, it aims to reverse the practice started under the existing School Funding Reform Act that provides special education aid to every district based on a statewide average of special education enrollment. Instead, it would restore a system based on each district’s actual enrollment.

School funding formula

But this move would essentially reopen the issue of the school funding formula in its entirety, an enormous task that neither the Legislature nor the administration have yet said they are ready to do. So far, Singer and Diegnan’s bill has not even gotten out of committee.

Senate bill 3759: “Creates special education unit within the Office of Administrative Law.”

Summary: “This bill would establish a unit within the Office of Administrative Law dedicated to special education cases. The administrative law judges within this unit would have expertise in special education law. The bill would allow time for the OAL to develop a timeline to hire, train, and assign judges as needed to this unit. The bill would also require a report on the adherence to the 45-day adjudication schedule and any other recommendations for improvements to the Legislature and Governor.”

This bill aims to address a longstanding struggle for New Jersey’s administrative law division to keep up with the number of disputes between families and schools over how best to address an individual child’s special education needs.

It is proposing no more than a handful of new judges, but the legal system is slow to turn and previous efforts to bolster the office have fallen short. Of special note in the bill is a requirement for the state to adhere to a 45-day limit on the adjudication of disputes, a requirement that has long been a challenge for the state.

Senate bill 3760: “Requires municipalities, school districts, and local authorities to regularly meet to discuss shared service agreements.”

Summary: “The bill would require the governing body of a municipality, the board of education of each district, and the governing body of each local authority to hold a public meeting at least twice a year to evaluate shared service agreements and discuss entering into new agreements. Any municipality that violates the requirements of the bill would incur a five percent reduction in formula aid.”

The last of the seven bills, it would appear the easiest. How difficult is it for a municipality and its school district to meet twice yearly to discuss potential savings and shared services? Many districts and their municipalities already do so in one form or another.

But the addition of an enforcement mechanism — a 5 percent cut in aid — speaks to how difficult cooperation can sometimes be.