Members of the Hillsborough Township Board of Education lamented that their “hands were tied” over a lease agreement with the township in order to keep its offices in the municipal building open.
Board members Jean Trujillo and Brett Cooper, along with Board President Judith Haas, outwardly criticized the agreement as an “upsetting” turn of events that will cost the school district at least $50,000 each year until 2023.
“I’m not very happy about the way this happened and I’m not very happy about the result,” Haas said. “In 1991, the entire goal of opening a municipal building was supposed to be for everybody in town to be able to find solutions to their problems and I don’t think this is in the spirit of why that building was built.”
Haas was the sole dissenting vote on the matter.
Earlier this year, township officials approached the school district about possibly entering into an 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 estimates provided by Committeeman Carl Suraci earlier this year, the township’s total annual expenditures to run the municipal building in an average year costs approximately $1.15 million.
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.
Since the municipal building opened 27 years ago, the school board has operated its central offices within the municipal building on a rent-free basis. School officials claimed that the deal was made at the request of then Mayor Peter J. Biondi.
Under the new agreement, which runs from Oct. 1 until Aug. 31, 2023, the school district will pay $50,000 for the first year, with 2 percent increases to follow each year.
With this new agreement, the district will continue to operate in its 6,700 square foot office space, as well as a 750 square foot conference room across the hallway from its offices in the northeastern part of the building.
For Trujillo, the decision before her during the Oct. 8 meeting was a simple, albeit unpleasant, one to make.
“It’s kind of upsetting to me that I have to vote ‘yes’ to this…I’m really unhappy about this because if we were to go out to the market, we would be paying over $100,000,” Trujillo said.
During her comments, Trujillo pointed to the fact that the township runs its summer camps at the schools without having to pay to use the district’s facilities. With no payment coming to the board, she opined that the new lease agreement was a double standard.
“It costs the board of education to operate the school’s facilities during the summer. I think it’s really unfair that our hands are tied to sign this lease so our staff are not evicted,” she said.
Along with Trujillo’s comments, Cooper reiterated that the new lease agreement was not the same as the district’s previous arrangement. Ultimately, he said the lease was also “unfair” to taxpayers.
“The board of education is funded by the taxpayers, so in essesnce, the taxpayers are paying taxes to the town for the building and then they’re paying taxes to the board of ed that’s now paying for the building that was funded by the taxes,” Cooper said. “It’s causing the taxpayers to pay taxes twice.”
According to board member Gregory Gillette, the school board had initially discussed a possible lease agreement with the township after its second 10-year agreement lapsed in 2011. What they found, he said, was that there was some value in drafting an actual lease agreement.
“It’s very important to have a lease to have some rights. We negotiated it and this is what we came [up with],” Gillette said. “It’s a good facility and it’s good for us.”