HVRSD School Board honors teachers and staff, passes preliminary budget

The Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education (BOE) met Monday night to celebrate its staff and to vote on its proposed 2021/22 preliminary budget.

Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith stated that the awards of the District’s Governor’s Educator of the Year Program and Support Professionals of the Year is an annual highlight, but that this year, in the wake of all the challenges presented by COVID-19, the awards hold special significance.

“All of our teachers, if we had our druthers, would be teachers of the year because they’ve all gone above and beyond,” he said, “but these folks that you’re going to meet tonight have been noted by their colleagues, parents, and sometimes students for distancing themselves and setting themselves apart.”

The honorees are:

Educator of the Year:

Bear Tavern Elementary School– Betsy Finnegan
Hopewell Elementary School – Vikki Obst
Stony Brook Elementary School – Khara Levy
Toll Gate Grammar School– Ashton Sands
Timberlane Middle School – Tammy Pegrem (Math)
Central High School – Carolyn McGrath (Visual Arts)

Support Professionals

Melina Guarino – paraprofessional
Ken Bialota – maintenance
Jason Bowers – maintenance

Tana Smith, the District’s Director of Human Resources led the awarding of honors and, in an email to MercerMe, summarized the criteria for the awards as follows:

Educator of the Year:
-Exceptional instructional techniques
-Superior ability to inspire students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn
-Respect and admiration of students, parents, and colleagues
-Ability to foster excellence in education as evidenced by ongoing contributions to the improvement of student achievement and the learning environment

For our Support Staff Professionals, we use the following criteria:
-Dedication to their job
-Inspiring
-Making a difference in the lives of staff, parents and students

A summary of biographies of all the award winners, provided by the District, is here. The ceremony included heartfelt speeches by each staff member’s supervisor explaining the ways in which each honoree positively impacts their colleagues and students. The video is here and the awards begin at approximately minute 8. Some of the highlights included a “GO MOM” from Jack Finnegan, Betsy Finnegan’s oldest son. It was noted that Mrs. Finnegan started at Bear Tavern as a parent when Jack was in kindergarten in 2003 and has never left, becoming a teacher there in 2008. Another highlight included a description of Bialota and Bowers who, their supervisor Tom Quinn, Director of Facilities, noted ,were nominated together because they work “like brothers” and have made an incredible 350 plexiglass dividers to keep staff and students safe from COVID, including custom dividers for front office staff. Quinn said that when asked to do anything, Bialota and Bowers always answer “yes we can.” “I honor and thank them extremely,” he stated.

After the awarding of honors, Dr. Smith talked about the administration’s plans to get as many students who want to be in school back in the classroom five days per week. He noted that the administration is working on plans for summer enrichment and that Dr. Rosetta Treece will talk about that plan at the April BOE meeting.

Dr. Smith also noted that the District has partnered with the New Jersey Education Association, as facilitated by teacher and NJEA representative Grace Rarich, to provide free COVID-19 testing before and after spring break. Requirements for quarantine after travel have been altered. The details are explained in a letter Smith sent to District parents here.

In what Smith called “the road to return,” he said that the District is planning for in-person end of the year events including proms, graduation, and academic and sports award ceremonies. “They may look a little different this year, but we are planning for them to occur.”

Smith then talked about the obstacles the District has faced in getting staff vaccinated for COVID-19. This is detailed in a letter Smith wrote here. He said that District’s efforts to get staff, who are now all eligible, vaccinated has been “incredibly frustrating,” and he asked for the public’s help if anyone has any ability to get vaccines for the District’s teachers and staff.*

Finally, the Board turned to the issue of the 2021/22 budget. As Smith explained in a meeting between the Board and municipal leaders last week, each annual budget is the culmination of a long process that starts the summer before. At this meeting, the Board considered and voted on a preliminary budget that was due to the County the following day. The final budget will be voted on in April.

Smith noted that the District has maintained excellence for years while cutting expenses such as staff health benefits, instituting greater efficiencies in special education, reducing staff to coincide with the decline in enrollment, and savings in technology.

Robert Colavita, Assistant Superintendent for Business, went through the budget explaining that there is a proposed 1.75% increase in general fund spending, but an overall 0% budget increase due to payments made to debt. Although the School District will be asking the municipalities for the same dollar amount they asked for last year (a 0% tax levy increase), Hopewell Township and Hopewell Borough will see an increase in taxes due to the way property taxes are determined by the County.

At a BOE Finance Committee meeting last week, seven of nine members of the Board were on hand to discuss two budgets that had been presented to the municipal leaders – one that increased spending 1.5% and one that increased it 1.9%. Ultimately, the Board compromised at 1.75%.

About the process, Board President Deborah Linthorst said, “after much deliberation and work, I think this Board has landed in a pretty good place, one which we were able to reach compromise with regard to the preliminary budget. The road to getting here, however, was a little bumpier than I might have liked.”

She noted a need for better communication among board members going forward, and committed to consider full-board participation in all finance committee sessions during budget season in the future.

Linthorst said she thinks another effective communication device is the annual meeting that has been held in the past two budget seasons for the BOE and District administration to present its proposed budget to Hopewell Valley municipal leaders. She said she was pleased at the turnout for the meeting with municipal leaders and their participation at the second annual such meeting last week, but that, since there were last minute developments to the budget, the discussion with the municipal leaders was “more involved than I would have liked,” extending beyond the information session she had anticipated. She stated that she thought it unfortunate that non-board members ended up weighing in on the budget before Board members had had a chance to review it.

“Ultimately,” she said, “regardless of the timing, regardless of the circumstances, this is the Board’s budget, no one else’s.” She committed to transparency and listening to feedback but stated that “we together as Board members will ultimately chart the path forward and determine which scenarios to consider and to strike a budget that will do the best to support student achievement and wellness in a manner which is fiscally responsible and takes into consideration all of the current trends and circumstances.”

Board members Debra O’Reilly, Anita Williams-Galiano, and Andrea Driver each took a turn expressing disappointment with the budget process. O’Reilly strongly criticized the process asking, “my question is, when was it decided that we were going to vote on the 1.75 and why weren’t we all notified of that?” referring to the compromise 1.75% general fund increase. Linthorst explained that the compromise was reached after the meeting on Thursday when two Board members who hadn’t been at the Committee meeting weighed in.

Williams-Galiano and Driver, who are the newest board members, also criticized the process noting that they would have liked to have had a greater opportunity to discuss what they characterized were last minute changes to the budget. Williams-Galiano said: “it’s not so much that I’m new, it’s that I wasn’t given a chance to look at what I would recommend is a balance between risk and value to our community in a time that we don’t have a lot of knowns, so that when we’ve done the work, we can feel confident that we did the best we could.

There was no response to O’Reilly, Galiano, and Driver’s concerns. The vote was taken on the 1.75% increase with seven members voting for it and two, O’Reilly and Driver, voting against it.

*After the meeting but before this article was published, Dr. Smith informed MercerMe that, the day after MercerMe published his letter asking for the public’s help in getting HVRSD staff vaccinated, both Princeton Healthcare and Capital Health offered to help.He told MercerMe: “Right now, it looks like our teachers will receive their first-round vaccines next week and we are working on a plan for our entire County.”

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