We are writing to express our disappointment and dismay with an article that appeared in your publication on March 11, 2021. While the views expressed in this article are our own, and we do not speak for the HVRSD Board of Education in any official capacity in this instance, a number of our fellow members were in favor of us sharing these views. By their request, we note that members Adam Sawicki and Bill Herbert are not supportive of these views.
In the article entitled, “Municipal Leaders ask School Board for a tax break,” the reporter grossly misrepresented statements made by district administration. Equally concerning, we find this article to be biased and a missed opportunity to represent the full meeting context. In our assessment, the intended purpose of the meeting seems to be of secondary consideration to the viewpoints expressed by the municipal leaders who participated in the meeting. Further, the article only represents one Board member’s personal view, without providing other Board members an opportunity to comment. Due to this, we collectively feel that the article does not accurately represent the viewpoints of the full Board.
Of particular concern is the portion of the article which purports that Mr. Colavita “indicated that it is the policy of the District to keep putting money in reserve in case it might be needed.” This is a complete mischaracterization of what Mr. Colavita said, implying that the District, with the Board’s approval, haphazardly makes deposits into the Capital Reserve account, with little to no discretion, and without regard for the projects that have been slated for completion. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are very specific processes which govern the transfer of funds into this account. Annually, and by adhering to a state-sanctioned process, the Board decides how much to deposit in the Capital Reserve only after an independent audit has been completed to determine the amount of excess surplus which is available from the prior year. The Board must authorize the transfer of these funds every June; the Board’s final decision on how much money to deposit is not made until after the audit is completed, typically in November. At each opportunity to authorize, the Board takes into consideration the latest on self-insured healthcare expenses, staffing, critical facility issues, status of state aid, and in this year Covid-related expenses. While this is not a complete list of considerations, the authorization is not one made in a vacuum. This is the primary means by which deposits may be made into this account. Funds may also be deposited into the account during the budget process if cap space is available.
Use of funds in the Capital Reserve Account, which is slated to have a balance of $4.3M once this year’s projects are completed, allow the district to systematically and responsibly address the considerable list of capital improvement projects for completion. The list of projects is carefully reviewed by district administration, who make recommendations to the Board Finance Committee on an annual basis. Together, administrators and Board members make determinations as to which projects will be completed in a given year. To address this growing list of projects, the Board and administration recently established a goal of depositing $2.5M into the Capital Reserve account when excess funds are available. While the Board would ideally like to deposit $2.5M each year, this amount is not binding. To note, the article mentions the current fund balance of $6.4M, which does not reflect this year’s anticipated capital expenditures.
We would also like to offer clarification for an additional misrepresentation of a statement made by Mr. Colavita. The article claims that Mr. Colavita stated, “the District has collected so much more in taxes than needed in recent years they have paid down their debt a full year in advance and still has enough money to fund an additional $2 million to reserve.” At no point in time did Mr. Colavita utter these words or imply that the District would engage in behavior of this nature, nor would the Board condone the collection of tax dollars in excess of those needed to sustain the operations of the District. To make such a suggestion is reprehensible and irresponsible. In multiple public sessions, to include the meeting of March 8, Mr. Colavita has asserted that the District would be able to apply a considerable amount of surplus funds toward the District’s debt service and to make a deposit into the capital reserve account (within the range deemed acceptable by the Board) due to savings realized over the course of the past year. More specifically, he noted that these savings were due to the District’s status as a self provider of health benefits, to changes in staffing and with the retirement of long-term employees, to savings realized in special education, and to reductions in transportation and energy costs due to the pandemic.
While the viewpoints of many of the municipal leaders in attendance at the meeting were reported in detail, the only Board voice added to the conversation was that of Mr. Adam Sawicki, chair of the board’s Finance Committee. Admittedly, Mr. Sawicki plays an important role in these matters. At the meeting, it was requested that he share his opinion by Township Mayor Julie Blake. However, as noted in your correction of 3/12/21, he does not have the authority to speak for all Board members. Despite the correction, Mr. Sawicki’s statement, as transcribed by him at the request of MercerMe after the meeting (as Mr. Sawicki lost sound during the session), clearly speaks to the intent of the Board in their deliberations and decision making and gives the appearance that he speaks with authority for the Board.
As a nine-member body, it is expected that a number of members may have differing opinions to share or may take issue with Mr. Sawicki’s comments. As noted, MercerMe followed up with Mr. Sawicki after the meeting to obtain an accurate quote. Surely, if this opportunity may be extended to him, it would certainly be possible to solicit feedback from other members of the Board to ensure that the article presents a balanced approach, regardless of who was invited to speak by municipal leaders during the meeting.
We contend that the article is one-sided and subjective in tone from the outset; the article’s title prejudices the reader and takes away from the true intent of the meeting, as stated by Dr. Smith in his opening remarks. The Board’s intent in hosting this session annually is to bring together local officials, to allow them an opportunity to review the Board’s budget in an open manner, and provide a forum for questions or clarification. Given the politically-charged title assigned to the article and followed by one-sided coverage contained therein, the opportunity for a reader to learn about the event without bias has been lost.
As a locally produced publication, MercerMe is afforded a more personal or inside look into the events that affect our community. On your publication’s website, you state that you pride yourselves on being a “a hyperlocal, independent, online news outlet serving the greater Hopewell Valley” which is “committed to our community and nobody else.” You also note that you “are all members of the community we cover.” As such, we feel that your reporters have a unique vantage point and a responsibility to remain unbiased. In a meeting of this nature, where numerous local officials are weighing in on matters as significant as the school board’s budget and issues pertaining to local taxation, it is extremely important to present a balanced view, one which represents a number of perspectives and voices.
MercerMe is a well-respected news organization within our community. We appreciate the role that you play and the work that you do to cover the important events and people within the greater Hopewell Valley. We trust that you aim to present the news in an unbiased manner which allows community members to have an open and honest exchange of thoughts, and encourages them to form their own insights and opinions. We kindly request that you consider both our concerns and the important responsibilities that you have as a news organization in this community in your future coverage of events. Thank you.
Deborah Linthorst and Jess Grillo Members, HVRSD Board of Education