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Districts have till May to seek anti-bully funds

The Christie administration has acknowledged that the $1 million set aside for the programs may not be enough.

In this Feb. 21, 2012 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie  delivers his budget address in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
In this Feb. 21, 2012 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his budget address in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)Read moreAP

The Christie administration will give New Jersey school districts until mid-May to seek their share of $1 million in new funding to pay for the rising costs of implementing the state's anti-bullying law.

But in its five-page application provided to districts Monday, it also acknowledged that may not be enough to go around and cover all costs.

"An application will be funded to the extent that it is approvable and funds are available," the application reads. "If the total number of approvable applications exceeds the available funds, district awards will be prorated and adjusted accordingly."

Such a demand is likely. School officials and their advocates estimate the statewide costs this year have well exceeded $1 million to pay for the additional staffing and training required in the new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. The applications are due May 11.

"It will be interesting to see how far this money will go," said John Donahue, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, whose members will be the ones applying for the money.

"If you think about it, if even just half of the districts apply, that's just $3,000 per district," he said.

And that's just this year. No additional state money is proposed for next year under Gov. Christie's fiscal 2013 budget. His budget does set aside nearly $160,000 to pay for two training experts inside the state Department of Education to assist districts.

The cost of the landmark law and New Jersey's ability to pay those costs has drawn statewide attention. The state's Council on Local Mandates ruled in January that the law enacted last year was unconstitutional as an unfunded state mandate. It was ruling on a complaint filed by the Allamuchy school district in Warren County, which contended that the law had cost an estimated $30,000 in stipends and training.

That led the Legislature in a quick vote to amend the law last month and provide $1 million to districts for this year's costs. The amendment also created a commission to track the implementation of the law. Christie, who signed it March 26, helped broker the amendment.

Considered one of the toughest in the country, the law requires districts to assign specific staff in every school to serve as the point person to investigate bullying complaints. It lays out timelines and procedures for how and when those matters are resolved. It also requires all teachers and staff to be trained in prevention strategies both inside and outside the classroom.

That all costs money, local districts contend, and a recent survey by Donahue's organization and the state's School Boards Association found responding districts spending as much as $40,000 more for added stipends, programs, and training.

A little more than 200 districts, about a third of the total, responded and their costs alone exceeded $2 million, the association said. The survey questions and responses broke down as follows:

Has the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights created additional, unanticipated costs for your school district? Yes - 88 percent; No - 12 percent.

Has it created additional unbudgeted costs for supplies, materials, and/or software? Yes - 74 percent; No - 26 percent.

Costs of additional supplies, materials, and software: Total among respondents: $444,319; Average: $4,534; Range: $100 to $70,574

Has it created additional costs for professional development? Yes - 91 percent; No - 9 percent.

Cost of professional development: Total: $451,292; Average: $3,958.70; Range: $250 to $25,000.

Has it created additional cost for "bullying prevention programs or approaches and other initiatives" for students, volunteers, parents, law enforcement, community members, and staff: Yes - 60 percent; No - 40 percent

Cost of additional programs: Total: $223,029; Average: $3,431.21; Range: $64 to $70,000

Did your school district incur additional, unanticipated personnel costs (including, but not limited to salary and benefits) as a result of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights? Yes - 30 percent; No - 70 percent.

Additional staffing: Total: $1,084,065; Average: $25,211; Range: $750 to $225,000.

After taking its vote in January, the state Council on Local Mandates has yet to issue its final written ruling on the previous version of the law. The ruling does not take effect until the written opinion is released, typically within 60 days of the council's vote.

That report is expected in the next couple of weeks, and the council's chairman said it would acknowledge the new law while not making a judgment on it.

"The ruling will speak to the law at that time as being an unfunded mandate, period," said John Sweeney, a former Superior Court judge from Burlington County who chairs the panel.

"If someone wants to challenge the new law, they have the right to do that," he said. "That is not before us in this ruling."