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6-26-12 Education - State Budget, Tenure, Higher Ed Restructure - and Related News from the Statehouse
Star Ledger - Sweeping N.J. teacher's tenure bill passes Legislature, heads to Gov. Christie's desk

NJ Spotlight - Teacher Tenure Changes Now in Christie’s Court…Union calls on governor to sign measure as reforms win unanimous support in both houses

The Record - New Jersey's $32B budget sent to Christie

Politickernj - Christie statement on budget passage

NJ Spotlight - Assembly Budget Committee Passes Restructuring Bill…Late-evening unanimous vote comes after a day of writing, revising, and re-revising amendments to the controversial legislation

Star Ledger - Sweeping N.J. teacher's tenure bill passes Legislature, heads to Gov. Christie's desk

Published: Monday, June 25, 2012, 10:05 PM Updated: June 26, 2012, 7:06 AMBy Salvador Rizzo/Statehouse BureauThe Star-Ledger

TRENTON — New Jersey's public-school teachers and principals would have to ace their own yearly test if they want to attain job security under a bill that won final passage in the Legislature today.

The Assembly unanimously approved legislation sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, capping more than a year of debate on how best to reshape the first tenure law in the United States.

The Senate, which approved the bill last week, concurred shortly afterward with several amendments made in the lower house and sent the bill (A3060/S1455) to Gov. Chris Christie.

The Republican governor has long awaited the tenure bill, but he is not expected to sign it tonight.

Christie has advocated for sweeping changes to New Jersey's education system since the day he took office. An overhaul of the state's tenure law has been at the top of his list for two years, and would represent another victory for Christie in his ongoing quest to transform the way New Jersey runs.

The Republican governor has been highly supportive of the efforts led by Ruiz, a Democratic lawmaker from Essex County, despite putting forward his own proposals.

"By strengthening our professionals, we will ensure that our students have the best teachers in the classroom so that all children – regardless of their background, their ZIP code, or their socio-economic status – will have the opportunities they deserve for educational excellence." Ruiz said in a statement today.

Christie and the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, have fought fiercely and often in the last two years, but both contributed to Ruiz's bill before it was introduced earlier this month, and the NJEA urged Christie to sign it today.

Stunned lawmakers jokingly suggested Ruiz head to the Middle East to broker a peace accord.

The bill would make a series of dramatic changes to a law first enacted in 1909. The most important would institute a new system of yearly evaluations for teachers and principals based partly on growth in student test scores -- a move that sets New Jersey on the same path as Indiana, New York, Washington, D.C., and others.

New teachers would have to complete a one-year mentorship program. They would then have to score positive reviews for two of the next three years before earning tenure. Teachers who already have tenure would keep it.

But any teacher, regardless of seniority, could be fired after two years of negative evaluations. Disputes would be handled through arbitration instead of administrative law judges, which proponents say would drive down costs for school districts that can get enmeshed in costly battles.

The legislation sets up four categories for grading teachers and principals: ineffective, partially effective, effective and highly effective. A combination of the first two would be grounds for losing tenure, though superintendents would have some leeway to give reprieves if they see signs of improvement.

Unlike in other states, the bill does not stipulate how much of an educator's grade would be based on improvements in student test scores. The bill only stipulates that test scores not be a "predominant" factor.

"It's a bit of a leap of faith," said Steve Wollmer, spokesman for the NJEA, but he said the state Department of Education has been running pilot evaluation programs in several districts, and some appear to be working well. "Everyone agreed that we needed to do something."

NJ Spotlight - Teacher Tenure Changes Now in Christie’s Court…Union calls on governor to sign measure as reforms win unanimous support in both houses

By John Mooney, June 26, 2012 in Education

As New Jersey’s tenure reform bill continues to win broad support, maybe the only debate left is who gets credit for it.

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The Assembly yesterday approved the measure 79-0, following up with last week’s 39-0 vote in the Senate. The Assembly made a few changes, mostly small, but there was virtually no discussion on the floor before the unanimous vote.

A few minutes later, the Senate gave the amendments their final vote of support, again unanimous. All that stands in the way now is Gov. Chris Christie’s expected signature.

The bill for the first time ties tenure protections directly to teacher evaluations, with teachers earning the protections with consistently positive ratings and potentially losing it with two consecutive negative ones.

But with the governor and his education commissioner so far silent on the bill, others quickly jumped in to fill the void. Most prominent was the New Jersey Education Association, which put out a press release within minutes of the Assembly’s vote, celebrating the passage and saying some of the reforms came from the union more than a year ago.

“This bipartisan solution shows that when policymakers listen to educators, we can accomplish important things together,” said NJEA President Barbara Keshishian in a statement.

The union can take some credit for at least influencing some key pieces of the bill, including what’s not in it. Most notable is the absence of any language that would change seniority rights for its members in the case of layoffs, something that Christie has championed since taking office.

The union was also one of the first to press for state arbitrators to hear contested tenure cases, something that did end up in the bill, along with specific time limits. Tenure cases are now heard by administrative law judges, adding to the cost and time required.

“Before anyone else was talking about it, NJEA proposed putting all dismissal appeals before highly qualified arbitrators,” said Vincent Giordano, the NJEA’s executive director.

Meanwhile, even the Assembly bill has gotten some new names at the top, with the original sponsors stepping back and new ones stepping forward.

Now named as prime sponsor is state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), the education chairman who had opposed any form of renewable tenure a year ago but slowly moved toward compromise in the last few weeks. The original sponsor, state Assemblyman Robert Coutinho (D-Essex) was named as a co-sponsor.

“This is meaningful tenure reform that does what’s best for our children while balancing the protection of due process for our principals and teachers” Diegnan said.

On the Senate side, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) remained the lead sponsor on a bill that she spent the better part of two years crafting. As the Assembly voted, she was in the chamber but did not speak. She accepted quiet congratulations and hugs from colleagues afterward.

“I want to thank all of the stakeholders who participated in this process to ensure that we had the best possible policy for the state of New Jersey,” Ruiz said in a statement. “This bill represents collaboration, but more than that it represents extraordinary progress.”

Still, there were changes in the last few days that spoke to the minutia of this bill that made it so vexing.

For instance, at the pressing of Diegnan and others, the final bill has new language about the role of test scores in evaluating teachers. Now it reads that test scores “shall not be the predominant factor in the overall evaluation of a teacher,” slightly different than Ruiz’s original language that they would only be a “partial” factor.

It’s only a word, but it speaks to the heart of the debate that has roiled tenure reform in much of the country, not just New Jersey. Still, Ruiz said yesterday that she had no problem with the change, saying she never intended that test scores be a major factor in evaluations. “This just codified my intentions all along,” she said.

Christie is expected to sign the bill. The general consensus is he would have not allowed his party’s entire representation in both Senate and Assembly to back a bill that he would turn around and veto, even conditionally veto.

And never predicted a year ago, there is one new party joining the call for Christie to make it happen.

“It’s not a perfect bill,” said Keshishian, the NJEA president, in her statement. “But the bill passed by the Legislature today is the right direction for New Jersey right now, and we call on Gov. Christie to sign this important legislation immediately.”

The Record - New Jersey's $32B budget sent to Christie

June 25, 2012 Last updated: 6-25-12, 9:29 PM  BY JOHN REITMEYER  STATE HOUSE BUREAU

Democrats sent Governor Christie their version of a new state budget on Monday, giving the Republican governor less than a week to decide what to do with a spending plan that doesn’t include his signature income tax cut.

The $31.7 billion budget approved along party lines by Democrats who control the Senate and Assembly spends nearly as much money as the budget proposed by Christie in February, but in several different ways.

The most noteworthy departure involves how the Democrats would deliver tax relief that both Christie and the legislators say taxpayers deserve as the New Jersey economy begins to rebound from recession. Christie wants an immediate income tax cut, but Democrats want more property tax relief. And citing still shaky revenue collections, Democrats will delay that relief to ensure the state can afford it.

Democrats approved a budget that they say reflects their party’s priorities over the Republican governor’s by including more funding for a tax credit for low-wage workers, as well as money for social programs cut by Christie.

Christie — who brands himself as someone who can work on a bipartisan basis to accomplish major goals — now has until Sunday to act and meet the constitutional requirement to have a balanced budget in place by July 1. Christie can veto the Democrats’ plan outright, or as many suspect he will do, use the line-item veto to delete specific items he doesn’t agree with, as he did last year.

At a public event last week in Readington, Christie signaled his position, saying he was getting ready to deploy his veto pen. After the Assembly voted Monday night, the governor said in a statement that he will “continue fighting for tax relief.”

“I will not allow New Jersey to go back to the same failed policies that nearly put our state over a fiscal cliff,” he said.

Christie is expected to respond in more detail during a scheduled public event in Brick on Tuesday.

Though much is the same in the budget passed Monday, among the key differences between the Democrats’ budget and Christie’s is funding the Democrats inserted to restore a tax credit for low-wage workers.

The governor reduced funding for that program after he came into office in 2010, citing budget problems at the time. With revenues rebounding since then, Christie has also discussed restoring the cut to the Earned Income Tax Credit, but not in time for the new budget year that begins on July 1.

The Democrats’ budget also includes more money for nursing homes, after-school programs and legal aid for the poor. And the Democrats’ spending plan includes the school-funding increase Christie put in his original budget, but reverses a language change embedded in his original budget plan that would have essentially directed more state aid to suburban districts at the expense of urban schools.

“This is a budget that represents the unified priorities of Democrats, that addresses the important needs of the people of New Jersey and that reflects the difficult economic conditions that confront us all,” Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, said during the roughly 40 minutes of debate on the budget in the Senate on Monday.

“It is a budget that is consistent with the governor’s priorities,” he said.

But Republicans said the Democrats’ spending plan — without Christie’s tax cut — was put forward to win a victory against a Republican governor who after more than two years in office remains popular in left-leaning New Jersey.

“Too much of this budget was about gamesmanship and scoring political points on the governor,” said Senate Republican Budget Officer Anthony Bucco, R-Morris.

Christie spent much of the first part of 2012 calling for the first phase of an across-the-board income tax cut, while Democrats countered with a proposed new credit on income taxes that would be tied to middle-class property tax bills.

The Democrats’ budget includes $183 million for tax relief, but with no specific language authorizing any tax cut or credit at this time.

That, Democrats say, will come when there’s evidence New Jersey can realize the lofty revenue targets — among the highest of all U.S. states — that Christie built into the $32 billion spending plan he put forward back in February.

Since then, however, New Jersey’s unemployment rate has remained higher than the national average and state tax collections have trailed the governor’s original budget projections for several months, requiring last-minute budget changes, including one that will bring on new borrowing.

“Everybody wants a tax cut, but it has to be an affordable and responsible tax cut that we can pay for,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson.

But during the 40-minute debate in the Assembly, Republicans said Democrats have been eager to hike taxes, yet now are reluctant to cut taxes.

“It should be the other way around,” said Assembly Republican Budget Officer Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth.

The Assembly, meanwhile, also passed legislation Monday night that would increase the income tax rate on earnings over $1 million, and use the nearly $800 million expected to be generated by the hike to increase direct credits on local property tax bills for those who meet income qualifications.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the millionaire’s tax — which Christie has twice vetoed — on Thursday. The governor is expected to veto the measure once again if it makes it to his desk.

Email: reitmeyer@northjersey.com

Politickernj - Christie statement on budget passage

By Darryl R. Isherwood | June 25th, 2012 - 8:21pm

Gov. Chris Christie said today that he will continue to fight for tax cuts, though he stopped short of threatening a veto of the spending plan passed in both houses of the Legislature Monday. Christie is expected to line item veto the measure, slashing programs and appropriations supported by Democrats.

“With today’s budget, Corzine Democrats reversed course and sent a loud and clear signal that they want to go back to the eight years prior to my administration when taxes and fees were raised every 25 days," Christie said.

"After two years without raising taxes, the only way to feed the Corzine Democrats’ obsession is to hold tax relief hostage. I will not allow New Jersey to go back to the same failed policies that nearly put our state over a fiscal cliff. Tax relief for our hardworking families is long overdue and that is exactly what I will continue fighting for.”

NJ Spotlight - Assembly Budget Committee Passes Restructuring Bill…Late-evening unanimous vote comes after a day of writing, revising, and re-revising amendments to the controversial legislation

By Tara Nurin, June 26, 2012 in Education|

Controversial legislation to restructure New Jersey’s higher education system passed the state Assembly Budget Committee last night and is expected to pass the full Assembly on Thursday, the last scheduled voting day of the session. The Senate, which postponed its own vote yesterday, is also expected to cast a favorable vote on Thursday.

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Despite hearing a succession of vehement testimonials opposing the bill and acknowledging an ongoing lack of solid financial data, members of the Assembly committee passed it unanimously. The committee held off voting until ten in the evening as they waited for amendments to be frantically negotiated, written and rewritten in private meetings among representatives from stakeholder institutions and both chambers throughout the day.

The amendments include provisions to limit the authority of a proposed board of governors for Rutgers University’s Newark campus to an advisory role; maintain the balance of power between political and non-political appointees on the current university-wide Board of Governors; allow a joint board straddling Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University to rule only on future affairs; provide for a two-year hold-harmless clause that inures Rutgers from unforeseen costs incurred by incorporating the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ); and ensure that all services at University Hospital are adequately funded by the state. Some of these amendments have already been added to the Senate bill; the others will likely be added by Thursday.

In testifying in support of the amendments, cosponsor John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) told the committee that the bill is still a work-in-progress that will be further amended to better comply with parameters set by Rutgers’ governing boards, as well as the 1956 act that defines the boards’ responsibilities for stewarding the university. Rutgers has threatened to sue the state if legislators, in conjunction with Gov. Chris Christie, enact a law that violates the 1956 act or doesn’t meet with its stated objectives.

“We’re not nullifying or changing the 1956 act,” assured Wisniewski, in what might be the most concessionary public nod to the boards’ authority from a legislator yet. “I think it’s important to reaffirm that whatever we legislate is subject to a vote of the Board of Trustees and Board of Governors.”

When asked if he knew how much the legislation would cost, Wisniewski admitted he didn’t. He then referenced a fiscal note prepared by the treasury department, which caused committee member Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) to lightly mock the note, teasingly implying that the financial figures included in the report have been roundly dismissed in the state house and discredited by a subsequent memo written by the Office of Legislative Services.

Wisniewski played along with Schaer, then added seriously, “I don’t know that it’s possible to move this legislation and have a number that accurately reflects what this will cost. But that will be part of discussions. We’re spending money no doubt. But doing nothing was not an option.”

The absence of definitive - numbers propelled a coalition of nine assembly members to threaten to block passage of the state budget if Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) didn’t delay a vote on the restructuring bill in order to hold hearings over the summer and fall to more fully vet its costs. The coalition crumbled when Reps. Connie Wagner (D-Paramus) and Tim Eustace (D-Paramus) defected, a change of heart that news reports suggest occurred when Assembly leadership vowed to withhold $10 million for bridge repairs in Bergen County. The pair released a statement explaining, "While we continue to have concerns regarding the speed at which the higher education reorganization is happening, we are ready to offer our support for the Democratic budget proposal."

On Monday, coalition leader former Assembly Speaker Joe Cryan (D-Union) ultimately cast his vote for the winning budget, explaining that his former partners’ support for the budget provided the numbers it needed to pass, making it pointless for him to vote against it. He uses the same rationale for his intention to vote for the higher education legislation on Thursday: as he told NJ Spotlight, there’s not enough dissent to keep it from passing.

The process to advance this legislation has challenged legislators, stakeholders, and journalists to keep pace, as a flurry of negotiations, proposed amendments, and changes has swept around it daily since it was introduced in the Senate at the beginning of the month. While many opponents -- and even some supporters -- have begged legislators to slow down, elected officials have acted to meet a deadline of July 1 demanded by the governor.

Outstanding issues span the state from north to south and encounter resistance from every institution slated to be affected: Rutgers, Rowan, University Hospital, UMDNJ and its School of Osteopathic Medicine (SOM) have all registered serious concerns about components of the proposal. Although officially, most of these institutions welcome the overall premise of the bill -- to strengthen higher education in New Jersey by merging most of UMDNJ with Rutgers, granting more financial and decision-making parity to Rutgers’ campuses in Newark and Camden, and creating a network of research collaborations between Rutgers-Camden and Rowan -- worries about debt refinancing, accreditation, research funding, student and faculty enrollment and retention, tenure and academic standards, medical service to the community, political influence and cronyism, and self-governance continue to plague the process and infuriate opponents.

Meanwhile, Rutgers-Camden law school is ranked in the top 100 in the nation, though its dean recently reported a more than 50 percent decline in enrollment since last year, a drop he attributes to uncertainty about the school’s future resulting from the legislation in question.

Yesterday’s Assembly budget committee hearing marked the first time legislators have heard publicly from representatives from SOM, which is designated to be subsumed by Rowan if or when the law takes effect on July 1, 2013. After UMDNJ interim president Denise Rodgers testified against the separation of SOM, a group of approximately 25 students dressed in lab coats stood in support of two students who testified strongly against this provision and for the school’s continued relationship with UMDNJ, which they, like all other vocal constituencies, hope will become part of Rutgers.

Speakers warned the committee that, as the president of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) testified before the Senate Higher Education Committee on June 14, a merge with Rowan, which they say lacks adequate infrastructure, federal designation as a research institute, and the robust synergies already established between SOM and other health science programs, could cause SOM to lose its own academic accreditation. This consequence, they warned, could trigger the loss of federal research funding and would prevent students from pursuing their third and fourth years of study and keep them from taking the board exams they must pass in order to earn their medical licenses.

SOM, ranked among the top three osteopathic medical schools in the U.S., receives more National Institutes of Health grants than any other and graduates more students who stay in New Jersey to practice primary care medicine than sister institutions Robert Wood Johnson and New Jersey Medical School. Further, they argued, a move into Rowan could compel professors to flee, including one Dr. Robert Nagele, who’s developing what may be the medical’s community’s most anticipated advance in diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease.

“There’s nothing to gain, no advantage to this,” said past Student Council president Luigi Cendana before the hearing. “It’s almost as if Rowan is a leech. We’d enhance its reputation while they worsened ours.”

SOM’s faculty senate, along with its alumni association and UMDNJ’s Board of Trustees have all released statements that echo students’ arguments. In addition, approximately 1700 people had signed a petition of support for their position.

During the budget committee’s question-and-answer period, member John Burzichelli (D-West Deptford) assured students repeatedly that legislators would not jeopardize the school’s accreditation. “We will not pass any bill that is not absolutely sure that accreditation remains in place. Without this, there is no merger. Everything stops . . .”

Indeed, amendments introduced last night insist that SOM be allowed to maintain ties with at least one other established and relevant facility and instruct Rowan to do whatever is necessary to build facilities and programs that meet with accrediting bodies’ standards.

Later, after the budget committee released the bill, Wisniewski acknowledged that the amendments don’t address what happens if SOM does lose accreditation during the certainly lengthy and expensive period of transition but he did say that overall, “every moment we’re getting closer” to reaching an agreement on amendments that should better satisfy interested parties.

A Rutgers source who did not wish to be identified summed up the open secret that defines how the proceedings have been taking place this week and last: “The real action is going on, in fits and starts, behind the scenes. It's unlikely that anyone expects these are the final amendments.”

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Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.



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