The state's Council on Local Mandates only meets a few times a year. Its task: determine if a statute constitutes an unfunded mandate on a community and, in turn, is unconstitutional.
But in the case decided yesterday and with one coming up that involves the state's controversial new anti-bullying law, the little-known panel is making its presence felt on some high-profile matters facing both local schools and the Statehouse.
Yesterday's decision concerned a complaint filed by the Springfield Board of Education. It argued that the law requiring districts pay for transporting non-public school students was unconstitutional once the state cut the funding for the program. The payments amounted to $771 a year per student.
But in a rare split vote, the council yesterday ruled 5-3 that it did not have jurisdiction in the case. It will not give its reasons until its formal decision is released in the next 60 days.
The next case may prove trickier, though. The Allamuchy school district has filed a complaint against the new anti-bullying law, claiming that the extra costs it has forced on schools in staff training and other duties constitute an unfunded mandate.
The law, passed overwhelmingly and signed by Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year, has caused considerable stir in New Jersey's schools this fall -- not all of it positive.
While schools across the state have stepped up efforts and events concerning tolerance and bullying prevention, school officials have also said that the requirements for additional reporting and investigation of all alleged incidents have been an administrative burden that has taken a considerable amount of their time.
Allamuchy's complaint centers on specific costs for the required training of all staff, as well as the directive that every district and every school have specific people in charge of coordinating prevention and investigations.
The sums in themselves are not high. The complaint said the software required for training costs $6,000, with a $1,000 renewal fee. The appointment of anti-bullying coordinators will also come with a cost.
"The additional job titles will require financial stipends for any employees who are members of a collective bargaining unit and therefore will be funded through local funds," reads the complaint.
The case is likely to touch off a slew of interest, since advocates and others in and outside the Statehouse have already said they expect other districts to join the legal action. The School Boards' Association is starting to compile information as to what additional costs, if any, districts are starting to incur.
"We're just 45 days into the implementation, but we have heard there has been an additional administrative burden," said Frank Belluscio, the association's communications director. "We will be doing data collection to what impact this is having."
The chairman of the council, John Sweeney, a former Burlington County judge, said the panel's role is clearly gaining greater attention as the recession continues to affect the state and local communities.
In addition to the judge the council comprises lawyers, executives, former mayors, and legislators.
"When I joined the council two years ago, we had no cases pending," said Sweeney, a former Superior Court assignment judge and former assemblyman. "Now in my second year, we have already decided three cases and have two more pending."
"I think the economic situation has a lot to do with it," he said. "People are scrutinizing laws a lot more carefully to see if they are spending anything at all."
Although the panel ruled unanimously this summer in the Springfield case that it did have jurisdiction, the state's lawyers asked for reconsideration and contended that the state's constitution had its own separate provisions that permitted the mandate, even without the full funding.
On the new motion, Springfield's attorneys and the state's lawyers yesterday testified for more than an hour before the panel, after which it met in closed session and announced its vote. Sweeney called it a difficult decision, and conceded that such jurisdictional decisions are the "exception, not the rule."
"It shows it was not something we decided off-handedly or easily," he said of the close vote.
Springfield's lawyer, Vito Gagliardi Jr., said he was mystified by the council's reasoning. "We are disappointed that they would not decide on the merits of the case," he said.
But until he could read the opinion, Gagliardi said he did not know if he would ask for reconsideration. The council's decisions are considered final and cannot be appealed to another body.