An apparent communication breakdown between the township committee and school board recently boiled over into the public arena, with officials on both sides trading barbs over stalled financial talks that could potentially cause the district to pay rent for its offices in the municipal building.
Since the Hillsborough Township Municipal Complex opened its doors in 1991, the Hillsborough Township Board of Education has operated its central offices within the municipal building on a rent-free basis. School officials claim that the deal was made at the request of then Mayor Peter J. Biondi.
Moments before the school board voted to approve its $129.8 million budget for the 2018-19 school year on April 30, Committeeman Carl Suraci questioned why discussions regarding a potential end to that deal had hit a snag, despite agreeing to meet again before the final budget hearing.
“I think it’s a challenge that all governing bodies have right now – trying to live within the [2 percent] cap,” Suraci said. “This was just kind of the natural progression when we were starting to review [our costs]…it was one area where there was a large disparity that needed to be addressed.”
According to Suraci, the township’s total annual expenditures to run the municipal building in an average year costs approximately $1.15 million. That figure includes building repair and maintenance, insurance and utility costs.
If the district were to cover its share of the costs, Suraci said, it could end up being around $109,000, though he said that figure was “negotiable.” He also said the township handles the district’s payroll, for which he estimates the district owes $50,000.
“Our perspective is that we have the $20 million budget and they’ve got the $129 million budget and we’re subsidizing them,” he said. “We also do provide the school resource officer for free.”
Along with the school board, the municipal building also houses the Hillsborough Township Police Department, the township fire district, various senior activities and the Hillsborough branch of the Somerset County Library System.
While most of those uses are township-run, like the police department, Somerset County contributes funding to cover operating costs for the library, which takes up a large portion of the building.
Earlier this year, township officials approached the school district about possibly entering into a new agreement that would require that the district cover costs associated with keeping the school board’s office running, including rent, utilities and maintenance.
According to a statement provided by the district’s Community Outreach Coordinator Kia Bergman, district officials said the school board and the township offices “have a long history of working cooperatively for the betterment of our children.”
“Keeping the local taxpayers in mind, township activities such as summer camps and recreation sports leagues are not charged any building rental fees when they are held at Hillsborough schools, the district’s statement reads. “The Board of Education will meet in the near future to further discuss its options.”
According to Suraci, discussions about possible rent payments took place a couple of times between January and March, though he did not personally attend. He said school district officials opted to halt further discussions until state aid figures came in.
During the meeting, Suraci pointed out that after the district received those figures, the township allegedly found it more difficult to gain an audience with the district.
“[Board President Judith] Haas just refused to have anymore face to face meetings with the township,” Suraci said.
During initial meetings, Haas said she and Board Vice President Dr. Lorraine Soisson met with Mayor Gloria McCauley and another member of the township committee. She said additional meetings did not happen because she was worried that the meeting “would have violated [the committee’s] quorum” rules.
“That meeting took place with two members of the five-person township committee,” she said.
Throughout their interaction, Suraci and Haas butted heads and made veiled comments about each other during the public comment portion of the final budget hearing. Suraci said he was disappointed about the hostility between the two during the meeting.
“This is not very productive, this animosity that’s going on. This should be really simple,” Suraci said.
Moving forward, Suraci said he hopes the district and municipality can come to an agreement.
“Attorneys like things in writing. What happens is people come and go and some of those handshakes get forgotten,” he said. “We need to maintain an agreement at a visible level so that when the players do change, you’re not relying on institutional knowledge as to what was agreed upon – it is spelled out and it is fair for both sides so there’s no understandings going forward.”
“If we had a well-defined agreement, everyone would be better off,” he said.