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Home Featured Hillsborough school board approves ‘doomsday’ budget ahead of state senate hearing

Hillsborough school board approves ‘doomsday’ budget ahead of state senate hearing

Hillsborough school board approves ‘doomsday’ budget ahead of state senate hearing

To be clear, with everything the Hillsborough Township School District has been through, there are no “good cuts to make. Everything hurts.”

That is what Schools Superintendent Michael Volpe emphasized as he presented the 2024-25 – worst “doomsday” case scenario – budget due to $2.7 million in state aid cuts.

However, the odds may be in the district’s favor as legislative efforts are underway to extend the budgetary timeline; return 2/3rds of the state aid cut as a one-time return (not returned to the baseline of the district’s annual state aid); and the ability for boards of education to go through the 2% tax levy cap in order to recoup previous amounts of state aid lost (become part of the district’s annual tax levy).

“This [bill has] been passed by the New Jersey Assembly,” Volpe said noting Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-16), who was the bill’s primary sponsor.

The bill’s companion bill, S-3081, sponsored by state Sens. Andrew Zwicker (D-16) and Patrick Diegnan (D-18), is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Thursday, May 9.

Freiman was present as the Hillsborough board of education passed the $141.52 million spending plan for the 2024-25 school year at a meeting on April 29.

Board president Paul Marini, Board Vice president Cynthia Nurse, and Board members Joel Davis, Elaine Jackson, Cassandra Kragh, Allison Laning-Beder, and Danny Lee voted “yes” on the budget and Board members Jane Staats and Jean Trujillo voted “no.”

The 2024-25 spending plan is a $2.86 million increase from the 2023-24 budget of $138.66 million.

This is despite the loss of $2.7 million in state aid, said Business Administrator Gerald Eckert.

“The reason for this is the two percent tax levy increase as well as the $777,000 health waiver that we’re taking this year,” he said, adding the district budgeted $3.25 million out of the district’s capital reserve for capital projects and grants – federal, state and local – totaled $1.91 million, an increase of $43,764.

Debt service totals $145.62 million, an increase of $2.91 million from the 2023-24 school year.

“It is my opinion based on what I’m seeing more likely to happen than not,” Volpe said of the legislation passing. “But since it has not happened yet, I still have to do what is done according to code and statute. I don’t have any get out of jail free cards that I can just ignore certain laws because I want to.”

Volpe said if the laws change, the district will revisit the budget. He proposes the $1.7 million, or 2/3rds one time state aid return, would go towards staffing.

Volpe and Eckert presented a balanced 2024-25 budget with approximately $2.5 million cuts including:

  • $1.1 million in unfilled referendum positions will remain unfilled;
  • $470,000 will come from attrition from four positions of retiring staff members that will not be filled;
  • $270,000 will come from three true staffing cuts;
  • $87,000 will come from extra services provided by staff members such as some summer work and
  • before school library hours at the high school;
  • $394,000 will come from reallocations to grants, savings from switching to Chromebooks for staff, the elimination of new instructional materials originally included in the budget, not running certain
  • Hillsborough Middle School/Hillsborough Hight School clubs, removing new assemblies that were originally budgeted, and other miscellaneous small projects that had been budgeted; and
  • $129,000 will come from the elimination of middle school sports.

When Volpe first sat down with school officials to put together the budget, he projected a 64.1%, or $400,000, cut in state aid for the 2024-25 budget.

Coming into this year, the district was projected to lose $243,694. For historical data, Volpe said the school district has experienced a total of $7 million in state aid cuts over the past five years. It has been the only school district in Somerset County to lose state aid since the state S2 school funding formula that made state aid allocation changes.

However, when state aid numbers were released on Feb. 29 indicating a $2.3 million state aid cut, or now 1,019.6%, for the Hillsborough Township Public School District, it left school officials reeling.

This year, Franklin Township is also experiencing a state aid cut of $386,982, or 1.80%, to its school budget.

“Nobody can prepare for that,” Volpe had said of the drastic cut. “I don’t care how good of a budget manager I am, nobody can prepare that the cut will be 1,000 percent higher than you thought.”

And with factors such as inflation and consumer price index numbers as well as contractual and health care obligations, school officials are “financially shackled.”

The 2024-25 budget is the final year of S2, but school officials do not know what the future school funding formula will mean for the township.

Henry Goodhue, president of the Hillsborough Education Association, said he commended school officials for working together with legislative channels to fairly address the problem of state funding.

“I hope it will have a lasting effect moving forward,” he said.

Goodhue said he does share Volpe’s enthusiasm and optimism of legislative efforts; however, he said in the meantime, he urged officials to reconsider cutting middle school sports.

“The reduction of middle school sports is something that I think is an incredibly bitter pill at this point,” he said. “Especially as students are acclimating to coming back to the normal life of things two years out [after COVID].

“Sports is a place where they learn citizenship. They learn the importance of being on a team or following rules of preparing themselves for the real world sometimes in ways we can’t offer in the classroom.”

Goodhue said he recognizes the district is “cut to the bone.”

“There are no good choices,” he said. “[There’s] nothing good left to decide in a situation like this after the difficult years the district has faced.”

Goodhue admitted he didn’t have a “perfect answer,” but he offered the district look at non instructional areas.

“There are places that we could look that has less impact on kids.”

Hillsborough School Tax Rate:

  • 2024 School Tax Rate: 1.3492.
  • Change from 2023 School Tax Rate: -0.0415.
  • Percentage Change from 2023 School Tax Rate: -2.98%.
  • The average home assessed at $547,355 will pay $7,385 in 2024.
  • For the sixth year in a row, the school tax rate for Hillsborough Township residents has gone down.

Millstone School Tax Rate:

  • 2024 School Tax Rate: 0.8608.
  • Change from 2023 School Tax Rate: -0.0434.
  • Percentage Change from 2023 School Tax Rate: -4.79%.
  • The average home assessed at $396,255 will pay $3,411 in 2024.