The Hopewell Valley Board of Education approved its latest budget amid criticism from teachers, students, and other residents at the budget public hearing, on Monday night at Hopewell Valley Central High School.
The new budget, which has drawn criticism from the area’s three mayors and current board member Adam Sawicki, introduces a 4.95 percent total tax levy and 2.4 percent expenditure increase. (For MercerMe’s coverage of budget introduction, please see this link.)
The budget additionally includes a number of proposed course reductions from Central High School, with some other courses, such as AP Latin, Dance 3 and 4, and Tech Theater 2 and 3, on the chopping block.
David Friederich, principal of Hopewell Elementary and representative for the Hopewell Valley Administrators and Supervisors Association (HVASA), said that voting down the budget would “cripple the District.”
John Grimaldi, a world language teacher at the High School and representative of the Hopewell Valley Education Association (HVEA), echoed Friederich’s sentiments as well.
“We believe that the budget put forth by this School Board supports our collective mission,” Grimaldi said.
Grimaldi referenced Hillsborough Township schools, which cut 37 teaching positions in their last budget. “This is a sobering example of what can happen when schools are underfunded,” Grimaldi said.
Students and parents were less enthused by the proposed cuts in the budget, with multiple high school students urging the Board to keep AP, dance, and technical arts classes.
“Not all of us are actors or can sing, some of us find our creative passions in hands-on activities,” said high school student Anna Lauricella, emphasizing the importance of wood and auto shop classes.
Another student, Emily Carlton, said that “Technical theater is so important to me… it’s who I am.”
Other residents spoke in opposition to the tax levy, which rose from 1.22 percent to 4.95 percent.
Local resident, Laura Warren, described how her taxes have risen from $1,800 to $16,000 a year over her 37 years in the area.
“You’re pushing out everyone who’s been here their whole lives,” Warren said.
Jennifer E. Curtis, a broker at Sotheby’s and local resident, urged the Board against the large tax increase and to “look at Adam [Sawicki]’s plan.”
“Housing and our School District are married,” Curtis said. “Now is not the time for that huge increase.”
The alternative plan, proposed by Board member Adam Sawicki, would use “a higher proportion of surplus, basically limiting surplus to the same amount used last year, and gradually reducing the use of surplus in the coming years,” according to Sawicki. The proposed plan would implement a 2.3 percent general fund tax levy compared to the current budget’s 5.27 percent levy. In Sawicki’s personal opinion, his plan would result in a “much less severe impact on our taxpayers” and that “the timing of this increase could not be worse for the Hopewell Valley.”
“The District’s debt service level is at peak. Federal tax changes reduced deductions for property taxes, and local realtors are reporting that our tax level is hurting home sales,” Sawicki explained. “As the District promotes conversations about equity, our actions should match our words. New families cannot afford to move into Hopewell, and many parents plan to move away after their kids graduate from our schools.”
Board member Michael Markulec, in response to Sawicki’s proposed budget, argued that the surplus is designed as a “cushion” in the budget, used for emergencies such as repairs or snow removal and that using “one-time dollars” for long-term expenses is “digging a hole” or “kicking a can down the road.”
The Board, with the exception of Sawicki, reached the consensus that the budget, while not ideal, was the best solution.
“We are a human business,” Superintendent Tom Smith said. “We don’t make widgets, we make students.”
Smith continued, stating, “We take no pleasure in taking this budget to the community” and that the budget was a “stopgap measure” to stave off “massive layoffs.”
“We’re in a situation where, in the coming years, we’re going to have to face and make some tough decisions,” Smith said.
Board member Markulec defended the budget as well, stating that it would put the District on “sound financial footing moving forward.”
Board president Alyce Murray defended the budget, as well, stating that the Board “is not being irresponsible.”
“If we gut programs, there won’t be anything for people to move here for,” Murray said, referencing other Board members’ concerns that Sawicki’s plan would create “significant cuts.”
The Board approved the budget in an eight-to-one vote, with Sawicki voting against it. Taxpayers will begin to see the tax levy increase on their 2019-2020 tax statements, with each individual municipality receiving different tax rates. Hopewell Borough will have a .09 tax rate, Hopewell Township a .05 tax rate, and Pennington Borough a .03 tax rate.