HILLSBOROUGH, NJ – Inevitability could be catching up with members of the Hillsborough Education Association.
No progress was made trying to save the jobs of 51 teachers at Tuesday night’s Board of Eduication meeting, and with just one more board meeting left before the teachers’ contract expires June 30, HEA president Henry Goodhue said members seem to be moving on.
The Board of Education at last month’s meeting announced the job cuts; 37 teachers were fired, with the balance of the jobs eliminated through retirements.
“Many of our members are dealing with finals, graduations and lots of other things in their personal lives,” Goodhue said Wednesday.
Additionally, many of the teachers impacted by the layoffs are seeking employment in other school districts; the Hillsborough schools administration hosted a job fair for those teachers on Monday, May 20.
The HEA is also preparing for a battle over a new contract, having declared an impasse with the school board in April, having met six times in the previous five months but failing to reach an agreement.
The HEA requested the appointment of a mediator by the state Public Employment Relations Commission. The first meeting will be in July, according to Goodhue.
Negotiations have stalled over workload concerns, salary and benefits, lengthening of the work year, scheduling for part-time staff and tuition reimbursement, according to Goodhue.
More than 200 members of the HEA attended the May 21 meeting, hoping for some good news from the Board of Education, but there was none to be had, according to Goodhue.
“They’ve said they are doing everything possible to save jhobs and protect the kids, but saying it is one thing doing it is another,” Goodhue said.
Members of the HEA were afforded the opportunity to speak publicly at the meeting, but according to Goodhue, it was more of the same frustration that was expressed at the April board meeting.
“There is still time to right this wrong. It is simply unconscionable that this board would willing choose to erode the opportunity to maintain our community’s great public schools,” Goodhue said at the meeting. “Vote to transfer funds, restore as many positions as possible and stop this nonsense once and for all. Take actions that reflect our community’s values of honesty, integrity and a total commitment to keeping Hillsborough’s schools among the best in the state...Our children and our members deserve nothing less,” he added.
“We’re continuing to analyze the budget and every document we can get our hands on,” Goodhue said. “We think there are areas worth talking about, where there could be savings.”
Goodhue said the HEA is working with staff from the New Jersey Education Association analyzing the budget.
“We’re using all the resources at our disposal,” he said. There’s definitely a lot of questions being raised and we’re hoping we can get them answered.”
Local legislators are trying to find money in Trenton that would help reverse, or lessen the loss of the jobs in the township school district.
Those affected received notice during the week of April 15-18, just prior to Spring Break, according to Goodhue. The HEA represents 1,086 employees in the school district.
The job cuts are spread throughout the district, with 18 at the elementary schools, including 5 at Woods Road Elementary School; 6 at the Middle School and 10 at the High School. The others are support staff positions spread throughout the district.
Those affected will work through the end of the school year and be paid through June 30 at which time both the state Assembly and state Senate will be finalizing the July 1 introduction of the state budget for 2019-2020, which includes state aid for all of New Jersey’s school districts.
Hillsborough has lost significant state aid the past few years and had hoped to blunt the erosion of state aid with the passage of an $8 million referendum in March that asked voters to approve all-day kindergarten, but more importantly, an infusion of $2.8 million to help steady the budget.
Residents voted by an overwhelming margin to reject the referendum that would have raised $8.06 million in taxes to pay for all-day kindergarten and stabilize the school board's finances.
The referendum failed with 4,432 voting against and 3,003 in favor. There were 624 mail-in ballots against the referendum and 406 in favor.
The vote total, 8,465, represents 24.62 percent of the 30,193 registered voters in the township.
Had the referendum been approved, it would have cost the average homeowner an additional $300 per year in taxes, roughly $25 per month on the average Hillsborough home valued at $389,300.
Also included in this referendum was a long-term plan for funding financial stability. Hillsborough Schools’ yearly budget is limited by a two percent tax cap. Over the last several years, the district has been forced to use a portion of its fund balance to cover costs outside of the district’s control that continue to exceed this two percent limit.
Financial concerns were compounded this summer when New Jersey announced it would reduce state aid to Hillsborough Township Public Schools by $5.34 million dollars over the next six years. A full-day kindergarten program would also have supported financial stability as the state aid formula calculates funding full-day kindergarten programs at twice the amount as a half-day kindergarten program according to school officials. Hillsborough is one of only 3 districts in Somerset County that does not offer full-day kindergarten.
Three days after the vote, the state announced a $526,000 reduction in state aid for the 2019-20 school year, a 2.11 percent drop from this school year.
The BOE and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jorden Schiff had warned that layoffs could occur without the additional funding sought in the referendum.
“We’re trying to get some additional funding for Hillsborough’s schools because they’ve been cut significantly past two years,” said state Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, (R-Somerset, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Mercer).
State Assemblymen Andrew Zwicker, D-16th, and Roy Freiman, D-16th, a resident of Hillsborough, will be lobbying their colleagues in the Assembly.
“I’ve had numerous conversations with the superintendent,” Bateman added. “When I saw the state aid figures come out a few months ago I knew Hillsborough was in trouble.
“This is not a partisan issue by any means. We want to work in the best interests of the children of Hillsborough and we don’t want to see people lose their jobs. We’re here to do the best we can. I hate to see 37 teachers lose their jobs,” Bateman said.
Freiman is confident the legislators’ combined effort will pay off, as he and Zwicker were successful last year in securing an additional $1 in supplemental aid for Hillsborough schools.
“We will put in for supplemental funding and make that our top priority,” Freiman said.
Freiman and Zwicker had arranged a meeting with Schiff and New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex recently which provided a forum for the superintendent to address the hardships faced by Hillsborough schools, which have lost millions in state aid over the past two years.
“We wanted the speaker to hear not just from us, but the superintendent as well as to the situation they are in,” Freiman said.
“From my perspective, the one thing I want to make sure we do is bring back the staff that was not funded,” Freiman emphasized. “That is my goal.
Freiman’s wife, and Zwicker’s wife, are both school teachers in the Hillsborough school district.
“We have a very personal connection to this,” Freiman said.
The 37 people represent "people who have worked extraordinarily hard for the district, have dedicated themselves to the children and to their profession and it is a sad thing that we're going to be saying goodbye to so many good quality people who through no fault of their own will not have a position in our district next year," Schiff said.
The HEA issued a statement after the firings were announced last month:
“Following the failed referendum everyone understood difficult decisions were inevitable. However, the ones made last night do not reflect the best interests of our community.
“The Hillsborough Education Association is deeply saddened at the loss of so many dedicated professionals who positively impact students' lives. Diminishing academic programs, increasing class sizes, and undermining the high quality of our schools are unacceptable. Our community values honesty, integrity and a total commitment to keeping Hillsborough's schools among the best in the state. Our children deserve nothing less.”