School board sets tentative date for referendum vote

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In roughly five months, Hillsborough residents will be asked to make the first of two important decisions for the Hillsborough Township Public School District, as officials announced the date of the first referendum vote.

During the Oct. 8 school board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Jorden Schiff announced that ballots will be open on March 12, 2019.

Schiff said the first vote will deal with the school board’s decision to raise the tax levy above the state-mandated two percent cap in order to “address state aid reductions and maintain existing programs and class sizes.

Back in August, officials learned that the district was going to experience the loss of nearly a quarter of a million dollars in funding as a result of Gov. Phil Murphy’s state aid changes. Under those changes, the district was deemed “overfunded” by Trenton.

With additional cuts to state aid expected over the coming years, Schiff has said in the past that the district’s previous answer of dipping into its surplus funds to keep within state guidelines was “unsustainable.”

“The two percent cap on the tax levy, coupled with flat state aid, has been very difficult for us to meet our needs, let alone grow particular programs. We have expenses that are outside of the board’s control that exceed two percent – and they’re not small. Those exceedances mean that we’re either cutting staff or programs or digging into surplus,” Schiff said during the Aug. 27 board meeting when the idea of a referendum was first discussed.

In addition to the first referendum’s push to deal with shrinking state aid figures, Schiff said the March 2019 vote would also deal with the introduction of a full-day kindergarten program.

Hillsborough is part of the 15 percent of state school districts that don’t already have full-day kindergarten.

Since the state’s student learning standards are based on the availability of a full-day kindergarten program, officials said making the change was an important step moving forward.

In addition, officials said earlier this year that full-day kindergarten made sense from a state aid perspective, since relevant calculations that determine how much aid a district gets is partially based on the number of students enrolled in kindergarten. Under a half-day kindergarten program, each student is counted as half a student.

Following the March 2019 vote, residents will again head to the polls later in the year for another referendum vote.

Schiff said residents’ second visit to the polls will deal with a number of high-ticket items, including various facility improvements and the construction of a new high school.

In recent months, officials said the district was working with Aramark and the district’s architects to determine what needed to be done. What came from those discussions was a list of projects at all nine schools, including sidewalks, paving, boilers, fire alarm upgrades, roofing, heating, water valves and HVAC upgrades.

Earlier this year, district architects determined that according to the state Department of Education Facility Efficiency Standards, Hillsborough High School is overcrowded.

With a “relatively modest” enrollment growth of four percent over the next five years and the potential for more enrollment with the construction of more housing units in town, Schiff said during the Aug. 27 meeting that the district needed to look forward at the high school.

Though both referendums are expected to have an impact on the school budget – and in turn, taxes – Schiff said the district will not know how much they will cost residents unitl after the state approves the district’s architects’ application for the projects.

“As we get closer to the referendum, we’ll know what the ratable growth is and then we’ll come out with the tax rate,” he said.

Leading up to the March 12 vote, district officials are asking residents to chime in on the district’s plans by visiting the district’s website.