Letter to the Editor: Former Member Urges Current BOE to Reconsider Budget

To the Editor:

Several times in the last month HVRSD Board of Education staff have publicly stated that the School Board’s 5.27% budgeted tax levy increase is necessary because “previous Boards” kept tax increases “irrationally low.” I doubt taxpayers would agree with this assessment.

Since I served on the HVRSD School Board for 10 years ending December 2018 and was Vice President for the majority, I am part of “previous Boards.” Throughout my term, I also worked on Wall Street and was quite vocal throughout our financial deliberations.

When building previous budgets, we spent endless hours deliberating the question of whether we should tax to cap when we didn’t need the money, were experiencing declining enrollment, and were asking taxpayers to approve a $36 million referendum.

The discussion usually consisted of our publicly-employed administrators encouraging the Board to spend the maximum available, while tax-paying Board member parents/residents advocated for balancing the needs of the district with that of the taxpayers. Our determination was not made lightly and our decision to only use what we needed was deliberate.

The Board mantra became, “just because you can (tax more), doesn’t mean you should.” Throughout my decade of service, we would not ask people on fixed incomes to absorb a 5% tax increase. Further, in the years we spent below cap, we still managed to provide for the district needs, simultaneously using minimal surplus and more than doubling the amount in our capital reserves savings (greater than all other like-sized regular Mercer County school districts.)

When the Administration recommended strategic projects, previous Boards explored and exhausted all possible funding sources before turning to taxpayers.  A few initiatives implemented during my tenure include: full day kindergarten; STEM and Performing Arts Magnet programs; increased AP and honors course access and a new turf field.  Some of these programs actually generated state funding.  Some were made possible by retaining teaching staff that would otherwise have been unnecessary due to declining enrollment.  And in other cases, we partnered with local government, generous benefactors, and nonprofit organizations.

I am very proud to be associated with a Board of Education that is being “accused” of  keeping tax increases down to allow taxpayers to keep as much of their money as possible, while maintaining first class academic, athletic and arts programs. Our impact is demonstrated by measurable improvements in student outcomes.

Interestingly, all but two of the current Board members were part of “previous Boards” that voted to approve past budgets. I have not spent time researching the district requirements underlying this year’s proposed budget, but regardless of need, it seems rather tone deaf to suggest that it was a “mistake” to not tax more than was needed in previous years.

Past boards believed that taxpayers would rather have money in their own savings accounts than in the district’s. This is especially relevant today considering the overall economy in New Jersey. I question the timing of this increase, given that so many locales have been impacted by State and Local Tax (SALT) changes and realtors report that our tax levels are hurting sales of high end homes.

The school district budget is the single largest component of our property taxes. I am confident that my neighbors in Hopewell Valley expect their elected representatives to balance the Administration’s wishes with the community’s practical needs and to make hard choices when required. I expect many would be very happy if other branches of our State and Federal governments were found “guilty” of showing concern for the taxpayers funding their initiatives.

I hope that the Board reconsiders their proposed budget and approves one that is more balanced between the desires of the Administration and the required contribution of Hopewell Valley taxpayers.

Leigh Ann Peterson,

Hopewell Township

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