Hillsborough community leaders come together to discuss teachers union contract

Hillsborough community members hold up a "Settle Now!" sign in support of the Hillsborough Education Association to settle a contract with the Hillsborough Township Public Schools District. Submitted Photo
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Hillsborough community members hold up a "Settle Now!" sign in support of the Hillsborough Education Association to settle a contract with the Hillsborough Township Public Schools District. Submitted Photo

Hillsborough community leaders came together this year to field discussion over decisions aimed to benefit the Hillsborough Township Public School District.

According to Hillsborough Education Association (HEA) officials, community members came together at an Oct. 28 meeting, joined with township mayor Frank DelCore, deputy mayor Doug Tomson, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) President Marie Blistan, students and representatives from neighboring unions such as  the Amalgamated Transit Union, to raise the question before the Hillsborough Board of Education.

At the meeting, officials said more than 350 audience members gathered at the Auten Road School cafeteria with an intent to encourage the school board to recognize what is best to maintain the district’s current successes.

This happened as both sides were nearing a settlement on the teacher’s contract, which expired this past June. The meeting also took place prior to a Nov. 10 special negotiations meeting. Officials said the school board and the HEA were unable to reach a tentative agreement on a new three year contract after approximately nine hours at the November meeting.

According to a statement from the district, officials said that the meeting was scheduled in an effort to avoid the delay and expense of a formal fact finding hearing.

Although officials reported that “significant progress” was made on multiple outstanding issues, they “regrettably” could not reach an agreement on salary and the restructuring of tuition reimbursement.

Officials said a meeting with the fact finder has been scheduled in December. The fact finder has the authority to recommend the terms of a settlement to the parties. However, the recommended terms of settlement are not binding upon either party. The costs for the services of the fact finder are the responsibility of both parties, according to district officials.

At the October meeting, NJEA President Blistan spoke about the high quality of education at Hillsborough public schools, including the district’s exceptional graduation and college admission rates along with the work of the HEA’s efforts to give back to the community.

“You have a model district here,” Blistan said. “People have come to live here and to raise their families here. They don’t come here just for the location or beautiful scenery, but for this public school system. You have the control to have a quality, stable workforce, which is accomplished through contract negotiations. Not just [to] demonstrate in words or clothes, but in action. Your commitment to respect them at the same level that they dedicate their lives to the students of the Hillsborough district.”

Somerset County Education Association (SCEA) President Dan Epstein, who was also in attendance, echoed Blistan’s statement by saying Hillsborough is “a fantastic school district; however, educators are suffering with reductions in take-home pay causing many teachers to obtain second and third jobs.”

“When you have a phenomenal school district with people who are working hard, giving so much of themselves for their students, you never know which one is having trouble making a mortgage payment, which of them is forcing their own children to go into higher student debt to maintain their college education or who is having trouble putting food on their table,” Espstein said.

HEA President Henry Goodhue also addressed the school board’s need for the Dec. 10 referendum election to address building conditions, but discussed the working conditions needing improvement as well.

“The conditions for our members have also worsened over recent months; but, unlike building conditions, there can be no referendum to repair the rapport between the board and members,” Goodhue said. “The state cannot provide 40% of the resources needed to replace our trust. Repairing the current state of affairs requires 100% commitment from each member of the board.

“You must individually evaluate the foundation upon which you are attempting to build our district’s future, taking the steps to ensure it’s the strongest possible,” Goodhue added.

Throughout Hillsborough, officials said approximately 100 businesses are displaying signs stating, “We Support Hillsborough Educators” and more than 200 with “Settle Now” yard signs have been distributed in town.

Residents, students and members of the HEA have also begun marching in the morning before school begins to demonstrate solidarity and their resolve to seek a fair and equitable contract that protects the excellence achieved in Hillsborough Public Schools.

In a statement released by HEA officials, they announced their stance on the status of the ongoing negotiations.

“The members of the HEA have made it clear that they are standing firm and demanding only the ‘Best for BORO’ and are unwilling to watch tuition reimbursement opportunities erode and salaries fall behind,” the statement read. “They firmly believe that Hillsborough students deserve highly trained educators and are determined to protect the excellence in Hillsborough schools. The HEA is open to all options that yield a fair settlement for its members, but believe that actions speak louder than words and look forward to seeing this resolved in fact finding.”