Springtime means a lot of things:  longer days, cleaning out closets, Virginia bluebells, and…  planning the 2014/2015 school year budget.  Two things it doesn’t mean anymore:  voting for school board members, and voting on the annual school budget.  School board elections are now in November in most of the State – and for districts that don’t exceed the 2% cap – voter approval is no longer required.

Neither change means that your local school budget is any less important.  School taxes make up most of what you pay in property taxes and ensure that there’s funding for one of our government’s most important functions.  For Hopewell, a combination of declining enrollment, increased State aid and good old fashioned penny pinching will keep the 2014/2015’s tax levy within 2% – while still allowing the Board to pursue some new initiatives.

HVRSD Board President Lisa Wolff tells MercerMe that each budget is an effort in trying to “prioritize spending by what we value” as a community, and that one of this year’s focuses was promoting and increasing extra and co-curricular participation by students.  She is proud that the district “offers comprehensive opportunities for achievement and leadership” but is concerned that the current fee structure might be dissuading students or families from taking advantage of the array of offerings.  Last year Hopewell High School families had to come out of pocket $119,750 and Timberlane Middles School families another $46,650 for the privilege of participating in everything from soccer, to model UN to the district’s champion FIRST robotics team.

The Board will be eliminating the fee for 2014/2015, according to Wolff, in order to meet the District’s goal of increasing participation in these activities, which recent studies have shown is among the assets prevent to reduce at-risk behavior in students.

On March 17, the Board approved the preliminary budget (more information is available here) which completely eliminates the fee.  Wolff cautions however that removing the fee permanently may not be feasible – and to meet the goal this year the District had to weigh priorities, choosing to spend “directly on the students” over some capital projects like paving that have been deffered into future years to avoid imposing a larger tax increase on area property owners.

Another help this year in keeping the increase under control is the $2.3 million in state aid from the state Department of Education that the District will receive — a 9.9 percent increase from last year.  While one of the larger increases for area schools, much of the money is tied to specific projects, including the district’s upcoming programing for out of district “school choice” students, and aid to help the schools cope with changes to testing requirements.  With the state and federal aid, Hopewell Valley residents should expect tax increases of $.04 (Hopewell Borough), $.03 (Hopewell Township) and $.08 (Pennington) per $100 of assessed value (for our explanation of why each town’s rates are different and the equalization of taxes, check our Ryan Kennedy’s post from February).  

There will be a public hearing on the budget on April 28 (MercerMe’s bloggers are trying to decide whether to attend the hearing – or the Citizen’s Campaign’s Citizen Leadership Celebration that night – two great options for civic-minded Hopewellians) and more information posted on the HVRSD website.

We have been covering local school issues including HVRSD’s declining enrollment process (including covering HVRSD informational meetings and the first public meeting addressing the tax impacts) – and will do our best to keep it up for those who have to miss a meeting or two.

Check back for MercerMe’s continued coverage of issues affecting our local schools, and HVRSD in particular.