HILLSBOROUGH: School board discusses unexpected dip in state aid

Frustration with Trenton boiled over during a recent Hillsborough Township Board of Education meeting where officials discussed the loss of nearly a quarter of a million dollars in funding as a result of Gov. Phil Murphy’s state aid changes.

During the July 23 school board meeting, officials approved a resolution to cut more than $280,000 from the district’s health care costs as a result of the reduction in state aid.

“This is a very unique situation that’s occurring in the state of New Jersey at this time,” Superintendent Dr. Jorden Schiff said.

Though the district approved a $128.9 million budget for the 2018-19 school year back in May, with state aid figures calculated even earlier in the year, shifts in the state’s school funding law have resulted in a more than $280,000 reduction in state adjustment aid.

At the time of its adoption in May, the 2018-19 budget totaled just over $25 million, which reflected a flat amount of state assistance since the 2012-13 school year. The reduction now means the coming school year’s budget will have $24,926,259 in state aid.

According to the state Department of Education, an overall state aid increase of nearly 11 percent. Increased funding was the story for a majority of New Jersey school districts that were found to be underfunded by the state. Districts that were found to be overfunded reductions to its state aid numbers, despite the fact that school budgets have already been finalized.

Schiff said the state provides approximately $600 million in adjustment aid. With the plan being to transfer funding from more affluent districts to those with smaller budgets, he said that plan was hard to imagine.

“That is very troubling on its face to think about $600 million of programs and personnel being eliminated out of a third of the districts in the state,” Schiff said. “School funding is complex under the simplest of circumstances, however by working with our legislators and trying to influence them that…we need to ensure that no one walks backward.”

Schiff said the district was considered to be overfunded by more than $10 million six years ago.

“There are huge swings on this and that’s frankly one of the problems with the state aid formula – it’s too volatile for school districts,” Schiff said.

School boards and administrators throughout the state were given until July 31 to adjust their budgets accordingly. In order to make up for the loss, Schiff said the district was able to make cuts to its health care costs due to savings that came about from switching its provider from Horizon Blue Shield to Aetna.

“There was only a one week window in order to do this,” Schiff said. “We have realized savings, so rather than reducing staff or programs, we’re going to reduce the budget by that line.”

Henry Goodhue, president of the Hillsborough Education Association, said he was particularly pleased that the district was not looking to reduce staff sizes or cut programs.

Goodhue did, however, question the school board’s decision to vote on two resolutiosn that called for more than $2 million to purchase new Chromebooks the same night they were forced to make cuts. To that end, he asked the board if there were any other areas in the budget that could have been dialed back to make up for the loss.

“I do question if there were other places we could have saved to either bankroll this money so that we could anticipate in later years or to possibly bring back some of the positions that were lost to attrition,” Goodhue said.

In the 2018-19 budget, the district lost four teachers at Hillsborough High School and one transitional primary teacher through attrition.

Schiff said the decision to cut specifically from the health care savings was “based on budget that’s already lean.”

Board member Gregory Gillette said he had problems with how the changes to the budget came about, stating that the board had no input about where reductions would be made.

“Mr. Goodhue had a good question – what other things were on the table? Does the board not have any options on this,” Gillette asked.”Why can’t we keep the Chromebooks we have for one more year and have no leases this year?”

Dr. Lorraine Soisson, a school board and education committee member, said the need for the new Chromebooks had been outlined to the board prior to the approval of the budget.

“It’s my understanding that many of the Chromebooks that we have are not usable and that this was something that we needed to do,” Soisson said. “While I am sympathetic to the frustration that people feel…about receiving this very late in the game, I think taking [the cuts] from the health care line is the best option we have at this point.”

When asked by Hillsborough resident Thomas Zobele about whether the district would file litigation against the state for the state aid cuts, Schiff said that course of action would prove difficult for any district in the state.

“Lawyers that know a lot more about the constitutionality of the state aid funding law say that the [current state school funding law]…is the only state funding law that has passed constitutional muster,” Schiff said. “So at this time, to try have a legal argument versus a legislative argument seems like that may not be a fruitful direction – that the real fruit can be borne through the political process.”

Looking forward to the next few years, Haas said the district was going to begin conducting ongoing discussions about what needs to be done moving forward, emphasizing that officials were “not going to wait until the budget season to start looking where we can make reductions and generate revenue to the district.”