Christie signs legislation to aid military students, update child safety seat law

Gov. Chris Christie has signed legislation intended to aid school districts with large populations of students from military families, as well as separate legislation to update the state's child safety seat law.

Both measures were among nine bills the Republican governor signed on Friday.

The first bill would permit school districts that receive federal impact aid to establish special reserve accounts to carry over unused funds from one school year to the next.

Federal impact aid was established in 1950 to support school districts that serve students who live on large federal facilities and whose families pay none of the property taxes that traditionally cover educational expenses.

In Burlington County, Pemberton Township, North Hanover, New Hanover and Northern Burlington County Regional receive impact aid because of their large populations of students who reside on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

The aid is often crucial to those school districts' finances to ensure they don't get shortchanged because of the federal presence.

During the 2013 fiscal year, New Hanover received $2.1 million in impact aid, North Hanover received $7.6 million, Pemberton Township got $1.29 million, and Northern Burlington received $1.48 million.

The legislation specifies that districts can move unused impact aid into a reserve account, separate from the district's budget surplus or fund balance, which is capped by state law.

Supporters said the accounts can help districts better deal with the volatility of impact aid, which is awarded in the middle of the school year.

The new law also prohibits the state Department of Education from awarding less funding to a school district based on the impact aid the district receives or holds in reserve.

The language addresses an issue that arose in 2010, when Christie slashed $475 million in state aid to districts to help close a more than $2 billion budget deficit.

The reductions were based on the money the districts had in their reserves and surpluses.

Northern Burlington was docked $2.1 million, or roughly 20 percent of the total state aid it was promised. The district appealed the cut, arguing that $1.67 million of its surplus was federal impact aid, and that federal law prohibits states from providing less aid to districts because of the federal aid they receive.

A state appeals court ruled in Northern's favor, and the Department of Education reimbursed the district the $1.67 million it had withheld.

Assemblymen Ronald Dancer, R-12th of Plumsted, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, co-sponsored the legislation and applauded Christie's action, saying it would help districts' long-term budget planning and protect the federal investment in education for military families.

"It's the right thing to do from a moral and economic standpoint," Dancer said.

The child safety seat legislation was penned by Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-6th of Cherry Hill, and Sens. James Beach, D-6th of Voorhees, and Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, and will update the state's law to reflect modern equipment and standards.

Under the update, children under the age of 2 who weigh less than 30 pounds will be required to be secured in a five-point child safety seat harness facing the rear of the vehicle.

Children between 2 and 4 who weigh between 30 and 40 pounds also would be required to be secured in a five-point harness seat. But parents would be permitted to decide if they want the seat to face the front or rear of the vehicle.

Children between 4 and 8 who are less than 57 inches tall would be required to be secured in a five-point harness child seat or placed in a booster seat.

The new requirements go into effect Sept. 1.

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