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N.J. School Board Members Get Break on Background Checks

Nearly 200 New Jersey school board members who were at risk of losing their positions because they failed to comply with a new law requiring a criminal background check have been granted a reprieve by the state.

The school board members who have not finished the check now have until Jan. 27 to register with the state and get fingerprinted.

The state gave board members until Dec. 31 to comply with the law, which was signed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie in May. But because of delays in implementation and confusion about what was required, some members put off submitting their fingerprints to the state, said Frank Belluscio, the spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "There was just a lack of urgency," he told me.

By late last week, the state released the names of 185 school board members and charter school trustees who were deemed ineligible to stay in office because they lacked a background check. The state has 4,702 school board members and about 600 charter school trustees, Belluscio said. Other board members declined to participate, saying that the law was an invasion of privacy. Even the lawmakers who had supported the bill said they were concerned about the law's implementation.

By late Friday, Christopher Cerf, the acting commissioner of education, said the board members would be given more time.

"Our priority throughout this process is to ensure compliance with the law while minimizing disruption to boards of education," Department of Education spokesman Justin Barra said in a statement.

New Jersey is unique among the states in requiring school board members to submit to a criminal background check, Belluscio said. The school board association wasn't in favor of the bill, saying that school board members, unlike teachers and volunteers, do not work directly with children. However, because the association supported background checks on school employees and school volunteers, it felt it could not fight efforts to bring school board members under the same policy.

So far, nine school board members and three charter trustees have been deemed ineligible to serve on their boards because of information turned up during their background checks, Belluscio said.

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