"We've got urban districts, rural districts, North Jersey, South Jerseyâ€"everybody has different issues, and yet we come together and operate as a whole. It's not a provincial committee."
Taking Extra Steps Many of the decisions in Trenton and in Washington, D.C. directly impact local school districts. Therefore, it's critical that local school officials maintain contact with state and federal lawmakers to champion public education and to influence decisions, according to NJSBA Vice President for Legislation/Resolutions Eva M. Nagy, who chairs the Legislative Committee.
"We're speaking as elected officials with a constituency behind us," said Nagy. "We're talking with strength, and we're talking with numbers."
NJSBA's team of lobbyists coaches and assists Legislative Committee members in becoming advocates for public education. Committee members are offered hands-on training exercises in areas such as grassroots consensus-building.
Mila Jasey of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education decided to join the committee in May after she had conversations with her state representatives, Assemblymen John F. McKeon and Mims Hackett, Jr., both D-Essex, about changing New Jersey's funding formula for public schools.
Her district, like so many others in New Jersey, has been hit hard over the past five years because of the state's flat funding of K-12 public education. With only a small portion of South Orange-Maplewood's school budget covered by state and federal sources, property owners in the predominately residential community pay approximately 93 percent of public school costs.
"We have very little in the way of commercial ratables. We're one of the most tax-stressed communities in New Jersey. It is time for New Jersey to stop pointing the finger when school funding comes up for discussion," she said.
Jasey is hoping that school board members on NJSBA's Legislative Committee can work with lawmakers to help the state strike a better balance.
"We want to educate our communities in terms of what the issues are and to understand that investing in our children's future is an investment in New Jersey. If we short change them, it hurts everyone."
Member Qualities The sole qualification for serving on the Legislative Committee is current membership on a local board of education. Ideally, though, committee members have a strong interest in the legislative process and are familiar with their area legislators.
"If you're the next door neighbor of Dick Codeyâ€"and you're a board memberâ€"we might be interested in having you serve on the Legislative Committee," quipped Mike Vrancik, NJSBA director of governmental relations.
Legislative Committee members serve as liaisons between their school districts, other districts in their region and their area legislators. They may be asked to testify before the state Legislature on behalf of the Association concerning major issues that affect public education.
Simply put, committee members are considered "our contacts on the ground for local districts," Vrancik said.
NJSBA wants to begin tapping more into its members' professional expertise. That desire applies to the Legislative Committee as well. For example, if a board member is a certified public accountant, that person may be able to provide valuable insight into particular financial proposals before the Legislature, according to Vrancik.
"There's a cross section of the working world out there among our membership. We want to get to know who our members are and what they can bring to the table," he said.
Successes in 2006-2007 The Legislative Committee has helped NJSBA to make considerable strides on behalf of local school districts.
The committee's hard work contributed to notable victories in the Legislatureâ€"from stopping a proposal to establish 21 countywide school districts to preventing the movement of the non-partisan school board member elections, which now take place in April, to the partisan General Election in November.
The committee's work also contributed to the recent pension and health benefits reform bill (S-17) signed into law by Gov. Jon S. Corzine on May 10. The legislation, which originated in the Legislature's special session on property tax reform, now gives school districts the ability to unilaterally offer their employees incentives to waive coverage under the State Health Benefits Program.
While NJSBA's Legislative Committee, along with the Association staff and its general membership, has attained much success in these areas, there's still much work to be accomplished.
For William Barnaskas of the Lyndhurst Board of Education, serving on the committee and attending January's Federal Relations Network Conference in Washington, D.C., have been among the most memorable local school board experiences.
The conference, sponsored by the National School Boards Association, brought 35 New Jersey board members to the nation's capital for the annual Day on the Hill, where Barnaskas' congressman, Rep. Steven R. Rothman, signed "A Pledge to America's Schoolchildren." New Jersey was the first state in the nation to have both of its U.S. Senators sign the pledge, developed by NSBA. Eight of the Garden State's 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives also signed on. The pledge urges reform of the No Child Left Behind Act and increased federal funding for special education and other programs.
"The fun part is to see how the process works and see how we can effect change," Barnaskas said. "The bad part is to try to figure out an effective way to get the information that we're trying to put forth to all the towns in our [legislative and congressional] districts, and get them to communicate back to us."
Issues Ahead The single biggest issue school board members will face this year will be the development of a new school funding system, said chief lobbyist Vrancik. – less–ZoomInfo