|1-6-12 Education in the News, plus Lame Duck Legislative Action on Education Issues|
The Record-Northjersey.com- November school elections bill moves forward...(GSCS Note: This bill is set for final passage on in this Monday's Legislative Voting Session, however it cannot be law until the Governor signs the bill. Since the Republican lawmakers on the Assembly Budget Committee did not cast their votes in favor or the bill, the future status of this bill is still not written in stone.)
Asbury ParkPress -Private-public schools bill advances
NJ Spotlight - After Last-Minute Changes, Lawmakers Poised to Vote on Urban Hope Act…Bill would allow for private building of public 'renaissance schools' in the state's poorest cities
NJ Spotlight - Christie Administration Divvies Up Its Race to the Top Winnings…Education budget demonstrates that $38 million can buy a lot of school reform
The Record-Northjersey.com- November school elections bill moves forward
Posted on Thursday, January 5, 2012 5:21 pm
A bill that would allow New Jersey school elections to be held in November cleared an Assembly panel Thursday, the last day of scheduled committee meetings before the current lame duck session ends.
The legislation has been promoted by its sponsors as a property tax reform measure because it would move the school elections from April to November, when voter participation is generally higher.
The bill – which cleared the Assembly Budget Committee during a Thursday afternoon meeting — would also allow school districts to avoid putting their budgets before voters if spending stays within the 2 percent cap on levy hikes that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2011.
“Politicians and pundits have talked about doing this for years, but special interests and inertia have prevented progress on this important issue—until today,” said committee chair Lou Greenwald, D-Camden.
“Empowering towns to move their school elections to November will give voters better control of their local finances while saving property taxpayers the costs of holding yet another local election,” said Greenwald, one of the bill’s sponsors.
The bill would allow voters to move school board elections from April to November via referendum. A municipal government or the local school board could also move the election by passing a resolution.
The legislation, introduced last month, needs to clear both full houses of the Legislature by the end of the current legislative session on Monday to get to the governor’s desk, or it will have to be reintroduced during the next session.
The Assembly and Senate are both scheduled to be in session on Monday.
Asbury Park Press - Private-public schools bill advances
9:15 PM, Jan. 5, 2012
TRENTON — A bill that paves a legal path toward new public-private schools in three cities – including the Lanning Square Elementary School in Camden – passed two legislative committees Thursday.
The Democratic-sponsored bill was amended to overcome Republicans objections, though a legal advocate for low-income students threatened to bring a lawsuit to stop the program if the bill becomes law.
The Urban Hope Act would allow for up to four privately operated public schools to be authorized and built each in Newark, Trenton and Camden.
The bill (A4426/S3173) passed both the state Assembly and Senate budget committees and is expected to be voted on in both chambers Monday, the last day of the two-year state legislative session.
South Jersey Democratic leader George E. Norcross III has been pushing for the bill, particularly because he wants to see a new private-public school in the Lanning Square section in the center of Camden.
Gov. Chris Christie had indicated earlier he would support it, but the administration has been reviewing the bill, which changed in recent days and on Thursday.
The bill is sponsored by Norcross’ brother, state Sen. Donald Norcross, D-Camden. It is controversial because it circumvents the state’s School Development Authority, which had been charged with constructing schools in 31 of the state’s low-income school districts that are protected under two decades worth of state Supreme Court rulings.
The bill is also controversial because it allows nonprofits that would eventually build the schools to be exempt from public bidding requirements.
However, school operators will have to find private financing. Republican Assembly members objected to a provision that allowed for public bonding for the schools, so it was removed.
George Norcross, in an interview Wednesday, said that public bidding laws have proven to escalate the costs of projects, not lower them.
“Public bidding causes all sorts of litigation, arbitration and change orders,” he said. “Why hamstring someone from going in and negotiating?”
Sen. Norcross reiterated the stance in comments Thursday. He said private school operators will be able to make payments on the buildings simply from the per-student aid they receive from the school districts, thus saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which has successfully sued the state to gain billions of dollars in additional state aid for the 31 low-income school districts, said that his organization was readying to file a lawsuit to block the bill. He contends the state, not a private entity, should build the school.
Sciarra said that state taxpayers have already spent $11 million to purchase the land at Lanning Square, demolish buildings that had been on the property and clean it from environmental hazards. A design for the new school has already been completed, he said.
And the state has cash on hand in its school building funds to construct it, and even if not, the state has already authorized $3.9 billion in new school construction statewide, Sciarra said.
“The money is there. It’s not a financial issue,” Sciarra said.
He estimated it would take another $25 million to $30 million to build the Lanning Square school.
The state’s school construction effort, however, has also seen its share of controversy. The agency burned through its initial $8.6 billion allocation and completed a fraction of the schools it was supposed to complete as projects faced cost overruns and were bloated with professional fees and project management contracts.
Camden resident R. Mangaliso Davis opposed the bill at the Assembly Budget Committee hearing. He complained that the community had no input into the program.
“This bill will take away the one school that we should have gotten 10 years ago,” he said.
Republican Assembly budget officer Declan O’Scanlon of Monmouth County, said he believed the pilot program would provide new alternatives for urban students.
“I think what you’ll find is the school will perform,” O’Scanlon said
The bill allows school boards in the designated districts to approve up to four “renaissance” school projects in their districts.
The districts would be able to appoint non-profit organizations to build and operate the schools. But those groups may buy or rent land from for-profit entities or may authorize a for-profit company to build the new school.
If the school were to become defunct, the land would immediately be deeded back to the school district. That raised a question from some GOP Assembly members about how a bank might secure a loan for a building.
The school district would pay nearly all of the per-child education costs to the nonprofit agency, which could use that money to pay to construct and operate the schools.
The bill calls for renaissance schools to be authorized to operate for ten years, but will face an annual review on whether it was meeting goals and improving school achievement. An independent researcher is to review the program after five years, according to a provision in the bill.
The New Jersey Education Association backed the bill because the new school will still be considered a public school and all staff must meet state certifications.
“It provides innovation within public education, along with accountability,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the top lobbyist for the NJEA.
Jason Method: (609)292-5158; firstname.lastname@example.org
With one voting day to go before the end of the session, New Jersey legislators scrambled yesterday to finish up a controversial bill that could spur some private construction of new public schools in three low-performing districts.
The initial Urban Hope Act called for Newark, Camden, and Jersey City to participate in the pilot program that would allow nonprofit organizations to apply to the district and the state to build new so-called "renaissance schools." Each district could get up to four new schools.
But by afternoon, a tweak of the language took Jersey City out and put Trenton in. And by the end of the day, even Newark wasn't a lock, since its state senator was calling for it to be removed from the bill altogether.
Still, that appears unlikely to happen, and the budget committees of both the Senate and the Assembly reported out the bill with strong and bipartisan support. The full Senate and Assembly are to vote on the measure on Monday, their last day of the session, and Gov. Chris Christie is expected to sign it.
The bill has come a long way from Christie's original proposal, announced last summer outside a century-old Camden elementary school. At the time, the governor proposed a measure to allow the conversion of the lowest-performing schools in a handful of districts to private school management companies.
But sponsored by state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D-Camden), the bill evolved through discussions over the past several months to be less about private management and more about building new schools, albeit by private organizations.
Yesterday, Norcross and others testified the measure was almost solely to jumpstart long-stalled projects in cities like Camden and Newark, where the state's court-ordered school construction program under the Schools Development Authority had virtually ground to a halt under Christie and only now has started to launch new projects. Under the bill, the new projects could be in SDA land sold or conveyed to the organizations.
"We all know and agree there is an immediate and incredible need for new schools," Norcross testified yesterday the Assembly's committee, before going downstairs in the Statehouse annex to repeat the testimony to the Senate panel.
Added Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate committee: "If the SDA was building schools, we wouldn't need this bill, but they've essentially shut their doors."
But working out the details provided the day's drama, as significant amendments were negotiated to address an array of concerns, causing the hearings to take unexpected breaks as legislative staff wrote them up.
One was the addition of Trenton and subtraction of Jersey City, after some legislators said the Jersey City delegation had no interest. Newark has similar questions, although it looks like it will remain.
State Sen. Ronald Rice (D Essex) said he strongly opposes the measure as a potential opening to for-profit companies running public schools.
The law allows the nonprofits to engage for-profit companies to build the schools and to ultimately manage them, except in the area of instruction. Few made much distinction, however, and Rice and other critics said it could open up wholesale for-profit management of these schools.
Rice was equally critical of the SDA, but he said expediting new projects should not come at the expense of disenfranchising Newark residents. Another provision of the bill would require the local school board to approve the projects, but in the case of the state-operated Newark, there is only an advisory board.
"This bill stinks, and we want Newark out of the bill," Rice said several times.
Other concerns came from Democrats and Republicans alike. Another provision of the initial bill called for school districts to bond for the construction funds, raising a concern that local taxpayers could be left paying the bill. The bill was amended to remove any public funds and leave it entirely to private money.
"The nonprofit would be solely responsible for the cost," Norcross said.
A lingering concern remained that the schools would not be required to follow public bidding laws, raising worries on both sides to potential abuse and corruption. Still, while some legislators said afterward that they hoped for some floor amendments on Monday, they expected it to pass.
"While I hear your concerns -- some of them extraordinarily valid -- I don't see how we can get in the way of building critically needed schools for our cities," said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).
Now that New Jersey has finally won some federal Race to the Top money, how exactly does it plan to spend its long-sought check for $37,848,434 (more or less).
In the application approved by the federal government last month, the Christie administration spelled out how where every dollar would go, down to the fringe benefits for staff and the $1,000 pricetag per computer.
The grant was awarded in the third round of the competition, after the state lost two previous bids, including one on a technicality last summer that ultimately cost former education commissioner Bret Schundler his job. Only states that bid before could try again, and ultimately all nine won some money, although a lot less than awarded in previous rounds. They also could only apply the grant to programs they had proposed in previous applications. The final figures remain fluid, especially given that the funding is spread over five years. But the budget is illustrative of the costs that go into the kinds of reforms that the administration has long hoped to spur with the federal funds, albeit at a larger scale, things like teacher evaluation reform, model curricula, and charter school oversight. The largest chunk of the money -- approximately $19 million -- will go to the districts themselves. To qualify, they must currently receive federal Title I funds for low-income students and be willing to participate in the reforms.
The exact conditions to that have yet to be determined, but they would apply to training staff or building local capacity, said Andrew Smarick, the state's deputy education commissioner. The state also plans to build an Instructional Improvement System, an online platform providing lesson plans in line with the new Common Core Standards, as well as spot assessments to see if students understand the material.
Pricetag: $6.2 million, which covers everything from upfront consultant fees at $50,000 a pop to annual system operating costs of $924,000 (about $7 per child).
Some $3.88 million, according to the application, will go to staffing up the administration's ongoing teacher evaluation pilot. That includes hiring three implementation managers at $95,000 a year to help districts put the models in place. Some of the money will also go to launch a principal evaluation pilot.
There also will be project managers and a communications manager in Trenton to "ensure the overall success of both pilots and the statewide rollout of each," the application read. Another $5.66 million will enable the state to develop a model curriculum that it will supply to some low-performing schools. The figure includes hiring consultants at $500 per day and an estimated $35,000 per subject per grade.
Some money will come back to teachers, too, with the state offering $500 awards to teachers for contributing taped model lessons of their own.
And the last large component will go to additional charter school staffing to help build the state's long-criticized ability to review and monitor the innovative schools.
According to the budget, $1 million over three years will hire three charter evaluation managers at $92,000 each. Another $100,000 a year will go to unnamed partnership organizations to help in the process.
Deputy education commissioner Smarick said the $38 million may be a far cry from the $400 million the state initially sought and lost last year in the first two rounds of the Race to the Top competition
"But especially in the teacher and principal evaluations and the curriculum work, this will really help launch and advance things we couldn't have done otherwise," he said.
Garden State Coalition of Schools