Senate President Sweeney and Senate Education Committee Chair M. Teresa Ruiz convened a group of state education organizations on July 22 to discuss effective ways to utilize aid allocated to public schools from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) over the next three years. The senators said they wanted to hear firsthand from leaders in the education community about their concerns, questions, plans and thoughts regarding how they will use this direct aid.
NJEA President Sean M. Spiller, who at the time of the panel was completing his term as vice president, participated in the roundtable. NJEA Executive Director Steve Swetsky joined him.
At issue was close to $2.5 billion being sent directly to local school districts from the ARP’s Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief Fund, providing a unique opportunity to address educational needs in a fiscally responsible way.
NJEA believes that this is a generational opportunity to invest in our students’ academic, emotional and physical well-being. We have never seen an influx of funds like this before. It is an opportunity to be bold, try innovative things and analyze what really works.
This funding should not be used as an opportunity to shift costs to the federal government, but to expand and do things that would not have been possible otherwise.
NJEA has consistantly held that educators physically present in the schools must play a substantial role in any decision-making process.
The more working educators are involved, the more effective and targeted those investments will be. Those who work directly with students know best what the needs are and know best how to meet those needs.
Two key themes emerged from the discussion: barriers to moving swiftly on capital projects, and that health-related decisions must be applied statewide.
HVAC was the main capital project discussed. Some participants asked for a more streamlined process for capital projects that do not have a direct educational purpose. Those panelists noted HVAC projects must go through the normal bidding process and get approvals from the Departments of Education and Community Affairs, causing the approval process to take as long as six months to complete. Solutions, including an approved vendors list, were proposed.
However, this should not become a competition between companies and vendors looking to cash in by selling programs and products. Community investments, made with community input and targeted at each community’s specific needs must be included.
Participants noted the differing guidance from local and county health departments and the volatility of the debate over masking students. Global masking mandates were favored by panelists over a patchwork of practices across districts. They noted that having local districts embroiled in these health decisions takes them away from spending time on educational decisions.
“I walked in expecting to have a conversation about the finances of the schools, how you are spending your money and what you are going to do,” Sweeny said. “And it really turned into a meeting of the struggles that the school districts are having—and they’re legitimate—that have to be addressed. And we have to fast-track as much as we can to get ourselves in a better position.”
Sweeney and Ruiz said that they plan to continue discussions with the Murphy administration, and to consider executive actions and/or potential legislation that could alleviate some aspects of these concerns.
Sean M. Spiller, president, NJEA
Steve Swetsky, executive director, NJEA
Donna M. Chiera, president, AFT-NJ
Irene LeFebvre, president, New Jersey School Board Association
Dr. Lawrence Feinsod, executive director, NJSBA
Robert Colavita Jr., president-elect, New Jersey Association of School Budget Officers
Michael Vrancik, director of government relations, NJASBO
Melanie Schulz, director of government relations, New Jersey Association of School Administrators
Dr. Richard G. Bozza, executive director, NJASA;
Jacqueline Burke, executive director, New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools
Christopher Nagy, treasurer, NJCCVTS
David M. Aderhold, president, Garden State Coalition of Schools
Elisabeth (Betsy) Ginsburg, executive director, GSCS;
Karen Bingert, executive director, New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association
Debra Bradley, director of government relations, NJPSA.