Home » HVRSD Insights: demystifying the proposed $87M referendum

HVRSD Insights: demystifying the proposed $87M referendum

by Amie Rukenstein

Ahead of budget season, MercerMe met with members of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District administration Monday to talk about both the challenges that will drive the 2024/25 budget and the referendum that has been proposed for community approval in September with a property tax impact in the range of $500 – $575 per household.

Referendum

Members of the public at recent Township Committee meetings have expressed concern about whether the new housing developments have created the need for the referendum, so we asked  Dr. Rosetta Treece, HVRSD superintendent, and Robert Colavita assistant superintendent for business about that. Dr Treece explained that the fact of new housing only minimally drives the administration’s request for a referendum. The lion’s share of the referendum budget, she said, is infrastructure repair that was put off in the last referendum in 2016. Colavita added that, at that time, there was $65 million worth of infrastructure repair work needed but the Board of Education determined to put off $30 million of repairs. Such things as roofs that still had a few years left on their warranties were held back. However, eight years later, those warranties are expiring and the necessity of replacements cannot be denied. In addition, the State will contribute this year to the cost of the projects if approved in a referendum.

The District’s slide presentation outlining the referendum explains that, since the last Referendum, many capital improvements have been made as part of the regular budget, however, the cost of the improvements needed now exceeds what can be absorbed in the regular District budget.

One of the more expensive pieces of the referendum is a long-sought addition to Bear Tavern Elementary. For about 20 years, students at Bear Tavern have had some classes in trailers that are parked outside of the school. Colavita noted that the trailers are small, difficult to heat and cool, and pose a security risk as students must leave the school building to go to class. This writer’s children, who are now in their mid-20s, had several small group instruction classes in trailers when they were Bear Tavern students, which meant that groups of children would spend learning time leaving the school, unaccompanied, to reach the cramped and uncomfortable quarters of the trailers. Colavita said that Bear Tavern also has had small group instruction classes in hallways due to a lack of space. He added that, even though the school population has dropped in recent years, teaching methods result in a space premium: in recent years, STEM labs and full-day kindergarten were added and the pre-k program was greatly expanded. In addition, special education kids have been brought home to the District, all of which take classroom space. The Bear Tavern addition portion is, by Colavita’s calculations, 20% of the Referendum budget.

Colavita and Treece explained that their demographer has predicted an addition of about 50 “unseated” students as a result of the new housing developments in the Township, which means 50 students for whom there is no current classroom space at Bear Tavern. The decision to do away with the trailers as classroom space, which has been on the wish list for at least a decade, and build classrooms sufficient for the current cohort and the anticipated new students appears to them to be the right thing to do at this time.

The referendum also proposes an addition at the 100-year-old Toll Gate school to provide more learning space for younger grades and to comply with First Responder requests to have access to the full perimeter of the building, which currently is not available.

The items driving the referendum to the greatest extent, which Treece and Colavita emphasized would be necessary regardless of new housing developments, is the aging of school infrastructure throughout the District. Colavita pointed out that, as a community, we think of the Stonybrook Elementary School and the Performing Arts Center and gym at the high school as the “new parts” of the District, but both are more than 20 years old and need new roofs and other upgrades. Twenty years ago, air conditioning was a lesser concern throughout the District, but global warming has made it a necessity to install and improve air conditioning in every school. The last un-air-conditioned room in any of the schools in the small auxiliary gym at the high school, which will be included in this referendum, however most of the schools need HV/AC upgrades, including Stonybrook, whose 20+-year-old geothermal system needs a supplemental cooling system.

The referendum also proposes two new turf fields behind Timberlane, part of $6,831,500 for site improvements budgeted. The reasons for the turf fields are numerous, according to Colavita. Currently, there is not enough room at Timberlane for all the high school and middle school students to practice all the sports offered so they are bussed to Stonybrook and to the Township Municipal Complex. The busses cannot wait for the practice period – they are needed to drive other routes – so if there is a storm or an emergency, the students are stranded at those fields. “We want to keep those students onsite – it’s a safety issue,” Colavita explained. Furthermore, he said that turf fields will greatly expand the ability of student athletes and the high school band to practice and compete during rainy weather.

To view the whole referendum presentation, click here. (*if the link does not work, see directions below)

2024/2025 Budget

As always, Budget talks began last fall. Although it is too early for the final proposed budget to be posted, Treece and Colavita stressed that, like all Hopewell Valley residents, the School District continues to feel the pinch of inflation in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Last year, MercerMe reported that the two biggest drivers of an increase in the budget above the 2% cap, which resulted in increased property taxes, were rising transportation and health insurance costs. Treece said those things have in no way dissipated. While the District is now fully staffed for school bus drivers, that comes at a great cost. The State allows transportation companies an up to 6% increase in charges to the District, but the District is held to a 2% cap in expenditures. In order to recruit and retain District-employed drivers, the District has had to increase salaries.

Treece added that staff salaries are a major driver of the budget and are hampered by both skyrocketing healthcare costs and a diminished applicant pool. Colavita concurred saying that the District used to get hundreds of resumes for teaching positions and now, when there is an opening, they receive only one or two. The number of Physical Education and Wellness applicants have dwindled to nothing because the Colavita said colleges are no longer offering certification in those areas. World language and STEM teachers, for which there also used to be a robust pool are now very hard to find. As a result, rather than hiring teachers right out of school at a low salary, the District must hire experienced teachers who are more expensive. Thus, they no longer see any budget savings when an experienced teacher retires.

MercerMe will continue to update the community as budget talks continue in the Hopewell Valley School District.  The Board of Education’s next meeting is scheduled for March 18, 2024 and the Budget Public Hearing is scheduled for April 29, 2024.

*To reach the Referendum presentation site: go to hvrsd.org. On the right, scroll down to Board and click on Agenda & Minutes. Click “Meetings” in the top, right, gray box. On the left, select the February 20 regular meeting. Click View the Agenda. Scroll down and click item C5, agenda discussion.

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