HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Stung by the defeat of a March 12 referendum that would have raised over $8 million to stabilize the school budget and implement full-day kindergarten, the Board of Education is considering several cost-saving options for the 2019-20 school year – including layoffs upwards of 50 teachers and staff.

Other remedies under consideration to overcome a $5 million shortfall in the proposed $130 million 2019-20 budget include a decrease in courtesy busing; and increased fees for technology, pay to play and building use, according to a presentation made at the March 18 Board of Education meeting by Dr. Jorden Schiff, school superintendent.

The Hillsborough Education Association, which represents teachers and staff in the district, attended the meeting en masse, wearing black; there was an hour-long public hearing, with many of the teachers taking their turn at the microphone.

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The HEA posted photos and a message on its Facebook page following the meeting: “HEA members put aside their typical blue to attend tonight’s BOE in all black as the Board announced it will cut 50 positions to balance the budget.

“This will directly undermine the high quality education for which Hillsborough is known.”

A final vote on the 2019-20 budget will be held at the April 29 Board of Education meeting. The school board is encouraging recommendations and advice from parents and taxpayers on their website. The link is: https://www.htps.us/news/what_s_new/input_on_2019-2020_school_budget

The proposed 2019-20 budget totals $130,125,644, just $226,261 more than the 2018-19 budget of $129,899,383, a slight increase of .17 percent from year to year, according to Schiff.

The local school tax is the primary revenue source, with $99,277,635 projected for 2019-20, which actually reflects an anticipated decrease of .77 percent,  a savings of roughly $50 per household, according to BOE estimates.

The numbers are higher in Millstone Borough, which sends its children to the Hillsborough schools. The proposed tax levy would increase 2.37 percent from $973,336 to $997,719, translating to an annual increase of $173 on a home assessed at $400,000.

Hillsborough schools have an enrollment of 3,501 in grades K-12.

The March 12 referendum was rejected by a vote of 4,432 against, while 3,003 voted to approve. 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 when the state of New Jersey announced last year it would reduce state aid to Hillsborough Township Public Schools by $5.34 million dollars over a six-year period.

 A full-day kindergarten program would also support 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.

The state announced four days prior to the referendum a $526,000 reduction in state aid for the 2019-20 school year, a 2.11 percent drop from this school year.  

Hillsborough is one of three districts in Somerset County that only offers a half-day kindergarten program. Approximately, 90 percent of districts in New Jersey have a full day kindergarten.

The Board of Education had lobbied hard for approval of the referendum, with several teachers and school officials hosting an information session on Feb. 14. Their message was clear - meeting the State Standards for kindergarten are much more challenging in a half day versus a full day program. The district included information on the pros and cons of the approaching vote on the district’s Investing in Our Future section of the website.

Had the referendum been approved, the full-day kindergarten would have been implemented for the start of the 2019-2020 school year. The program would be held at all six elementary schools in the district. Implementation expenses would have included staff, supplies, training, technology, transportation costs, and the lease of modular classrooms to be used for offices and/or specialty classrooms. This would allow for additional kindergarten classrooms to be set-up in the school buildings.

School officials had warned prior to the March 12 vote that if rejected, Hillsborough Schools would need to consider reducing teachers and staff and increasing class sizes. The district would also be forced to contemplate increasing fees for students to participate in athletics and co-curricular activities, raising fees for technology, and eliminating programs that the Board could no longer afford; reductions would continue in future years as state aid is reduced $5.34 million dollars over the next six years.