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1-5-12 Education and Related Issues in the News
Press of Atlantic City Opinion - Urban Hope Act / What’s the rush?

NJ Spotlight - Criminal Background Check Law Leaves Some School Board Members in Limbo…Missing the year-end deadline makes members 'ineligible' but not 'disqualified'

Star Ledger - N.J. lawmakers scramble to pass bills as legislative session comes to a close

Press of Atlantic City Opinion - Urban Hope Act / What’s the rush?

Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2012 12:01 am

It happens every year when a legislative session is about to end. State lawmakers rush to vote on a basket of bills before the clock runs out.

And it's happening again.

One of the more-worrisome bills expected to be up for a last-minute vote is the Urban Hope Act, a perfect example of why this dash-to-the-finish approach shouldn't be used with important legislation.

The Urban Hope Act is another attempt to give students in urban districts an alternative to failing public schools.

This law was originally proposed in July with the goal of allowing private companies to take over the management of some failing schools, converting them to charter schools.

In its latest incarnation, introduced three weeks ago, it would allow nonprofit groups and for-profit companies to build and run a limited number of new schools in Camden, Newark and Jersey City.

The new focus reflects lawmakers' frustration with the Schools Development Authority, which has made little progress in building new schools in the state's poorest districts.

Primary sponsor Sen. Donald Norcross, D-Camden, has rewritten the original law so thoroughly that it now has the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association. Teachers in the newly constructed schools - called "renaissance schools" - would have the same qualification requirements and collective-bargaining power as teachers in public schools.

But, as you might expect in such rushed legislation, the Urban Hope Act has many observers hoping for answers to troubling questions.

Most involve the potential for abuse when private entities try to make a profit using public resources.

For instance, why exempt builders of renaissance schools from bidding requirements?

And, since the bill allows private entities to build on land owned by school districts or by the SDA, doesn't that mean local taxpayers would be subsidizing a private business?

The bill allows districts and municipalities to issue bonds to finance school construction without voter approval. The private entities running renaissance schools would be responsible for paying off the bonds. This seems especially risky. What happens if these nonprofits or businesses fail? Wouldn't taxpayers ultimately be responsible?

Other states have come to regret similar arrangements. In Minnesota, rampant construction of charter schools by private entities led to a disaster in which taxpayers were responsible for paying off the debt of failed schools.

That doesn't mean New Jersey would experience the same thing. But it does mean that lawmakers should put safeguards in place, and should proceed slowly with this legislation, taking it up in the next session.


NJ Spotlight - Criminal Background Check Law Leaves Some School Board Members in Limbo…Missing the year-end deadline makes members 'ineligible' but not 'disqualified'

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By John Mooney, January 5, 2012 in Education|2 Comments

Scores of school board members have missed the cutoff date for a new law requiring local school board members to undergo criminal background checks, leaving themselves -- and to some degree their boards -- in a kind of administrative limbo.

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According to the state and the New Jersey School Boards Association, more than 300 out of nearly 5,300 board members and charter school trustees statewide did not meet the December 31 deadline to register and complete the background check. They have been stripped of their elected or appointed positions, as the law requires.

"There are no exceptions for board members/trustees to continue to serve without having submitted to the criminal history record check," said a statement from the state Department of Education yesterday.

But whether board members will be reinstated once they've submitted to the background check is unclear.

"We don't know that yet," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the School Boards Association.

Enacted last spring amid some controversy, the law had elected officials rushing to meet the year-end deadline. As of October, thousands had not yet registered, and state and association officials launched an unprecedented campaign to notify them.

Still, the law did end the school board careers of at least a dozen members, permanently disqualified for having a conviction on their records, according to the data provided by the association. There is no appeal provision in the law, other than to the accuracy of the records.

The law disqualifies board members or trustees who have been convicted of any of a long list of felonies or other crimes at any point in their adult lives, including most violent or drug-related offenses. It is similar to a law in place for school employees.

In a lengthy statement, the department made a distinction between those "disqualified" from serving due to past convictions, and those now "ineligible" due to not completing the background check.

"Any school board member who did not submit to a criminal history background check by December 31 is ineligible to serve on the board," said the statement from Richard Vespucci, a department spokesman.

"The term disqualified is used for those with convictions on their criminal history record," it continued. "We need to confirm and reconfirm those that are not eligible before we send the final notices to have them cease serving in the position of board member/trustee. We have been working on that list for several days."

The uncertainty has the state association itself scrambling to determine what to do next in when guiding its own members. Belluscio said he did not think it would disrupt the operation of any boards, since ineligible members are likely distributed widely across the approximately 600 state school boards.

"I don't think this affects a majority [of members] on any boards," he said.

He also said those deemed ineligible could still likely be appointed to fill their own vacancies until they complete the background check and found eligible.

The following data was provided by the state as of Tuesday, the association said:

·         4,513 board members submitted to the criminal history record check, out of 4,702 currently serving;

·         4,109 board members completed criminal history record check so far, with results for the balance still pending;

·         Nine board members disqualified due to prior convictions;

·         432 school trustees submitted to the criminal history record check, out of 597 trustees currently serving;

·         331 trustees completed criminal history record check; and

·         Three trustees disqualified due to prior convictions.



Star Ledger - N.J. lawmakers scramble to pass bills as legislative session comes to a close

Published: Thursday, January 05, 2012, 6:00 AM

By Star-Ledger StaffThe Star-Ledger

TRENTON — With two legislative sessions remaining, state lawmakers braced for a flurry of committee hearings today on bills ranging from education reform to expanding wine sales.

In all, 11 committees will consider nearly 100 bills and appointments, and the successful ones will probably come before both houses for a final vote on Monday.

Although Gov. Chris Christie has failed to deliver sweeping education reform despite assurances mingled with criticism of the Legislature, a measure allowing non-profit companies to manage public schools in three failing districts may have new life.

The Assembly Budget Committee plans to vote on the Urban Hope Act (A4426), sponsored by Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), which would give non-profits unprecedented authority over traditional New Jersey public schools for the first time.

An earlier version of the bill allowed for-profit companies to manage schools, but they were largely cut out of the most recent iteration.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has been sharply critical of the proposal, calling the legislation a veiled effort to "funnel tax dollars" to the private businesses.

In what has become almost a daily ritual, Christie lambasted Democratic lawmakers Wednesday for not taking up his entire package of education reforms, which include weakening teacher tenure and establishing merit pay.

"As parents get the opportunity to speak with their feet, hopefully that will be one of the things that will contribute to waking up the public school systems and these failing districts to say we have to compete for these children, we have to get better," Christie said at a news conference Wednesday.

Winery owners and liquor distributors will also be watching the Assembly Budget Committee as lawmakers consider a bill that would allow wineries to sell directly to consumers on the internet and at retail stores.

Democrats are deeply divided on the issue, with critics contending the bill would cripple distributors who rely on wine sales to stay in business. Proponents say it would give a much needed boost to the state’s burgeoning wine industry.

In other action, the Senate Judiciary Committee is to take up several gubernatorial appointments, including Jeff Chiesa as the next state attorney general. Chiesa, the governor’s chief counsel and a close friend, was nominated about three weeks ago to replace Paula Dow.

Dow was nominated to the Superior Court in Essex County, but a political fight between Christie and Democratic senators from there threatens to delay her confirmation.

The Senate Budget Committee will consider a bill intended to make it easier for tourists and gamblers visiting New Jersey to get married on the spot.

The bill, which has already been approved by an Assembly committee, eliminates the current three-day waiting period for marriage licenses. But couples would still have to get a wedding license from a municipality during business hours.

Not surprisngly, the casino industry in Atlantic City has been pushing for the changes.

"This bill provides New Jersey’s small weddings market with a shot in the arm," Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the sponsor of the measure, said when he unveiled the bill last month. "With unemployment still at 9 percent, this common-sense bill will stimulate local economies and create jobs in our state."

By Jarrett Renshaw and Jessica Calefati/The Star-Ledger

Statehouse Bureau staff writer Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report

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