School Board – final budget increases spending but not tax levy

At its most recent meeting, the Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) Board of Education adopted a $95 million budget to fund the operation of the school district during the 2021-22 school year, which reflects a 2.9% increase over the previous $92.3 million budget. The budget was moved by Adam Sawicki and seconded by Jenny Long. The final vote was seven in favor with Andrea Driver and Deborah O’Reilly abstaining.

HVRSD Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith said, “The budget supports excellent programming for students that supports the District’s mission…valuing a culture of respect which values diversity. This has really become a focal point of our efforts in the last couple years.”

Budget highlights include maintaining all existing programs, while health care, the second biggest budget driver, has seen a 0% increase for the past two years.

Smith expressed disappointment that he “will not be able to deliver a change in (school) start time,” due to higher than expected transportation costs associated with such a change.

In his presentation, Smith emphasized that more than 75% of the total budget is dedicated to salaries and benefits. Due to reduced sections driven by declining enrollment and a move to self-insurance, that part of the budget is increasing at less than one percent. Specifically, in the graphic above, the three categories of regular instruction, special education, and benefits total $71,960,257 for 2021-22, which is an increase of approximately 0.9% over the 2020-21 budget. The remaining approximately 2% increase comes from areas other than salaries and benefits.

Robert Colavita, HVRSD Assistant Superintendent for Business / Board Secretary, presented the budget numbers. (see graphic below). The tax levy is the portion of the budget that Hopewell Valley property owners will pay in school property taxes to support the schools. The Total Tax Levy incorporates two components: school district operating expenses (“General Fund”) plus outstanding debt (“Debt Service”). General Fund increases are capped by the State at 2%. This graphic highlights that the General Fund and Total Tax Levy increase for 2021-22 at  1.75% and 0% respectively. Over the last five years, General Fund increases have totaled 13.16% and the Total Tax Levy has increased 10.81%.

While the 2021-22 Total Tax Levy of $82.17 million remains at the same amount as the adopted budget for 2020-21, each municipality will incur tax increases at varying rates due to ratable distribution and complicated County formulas that allocate the share of school taxes among the municipalities.

· In Hopewell Borough, the school tax rate will increase 0.02 to $1.74 per $100 of assessed valuation.

· In Hopewell Township, the school tax rate will increase 0.04 to $1.78 per $100 of assessed valuation.

· In Pennington Borough, the school tax rate will remain the same at $1.62 per $100 of assessed valuation.

After Smith and Colavita concluded their budget presentations, Board President Deborah Linthorst opened the floor to the public and the Board of Education. No one from the public spoke and the only budget-related comment from the Board was by Adam Sawicki.

Sawicki asked: “The Board has had the goal of depositing approximately $2.5 million into the Capital Reserve each year. Based upon where we are currently trending, do you think we will be able to do that this year?”

Colavita indicated that the District is “prepped and ready” and that they “should be ok” to make at least a $2 million deposit “if not the whole $2.5 million.” (See important fact checking update.)

Linthorst said: “I will thank Dr. Smith and Mr. Colavita for their presentation and all their diligence. And I will thank all of the members of the finance committee again, all of those who have worked diligently over the course of the year to provide us with reports and updates. And I thank everyone for hanging in there through all of this.”

In a subsequent email responding to MercerMe’s question to Andrea Driver and Debra O’Reilly about their abstentions from the vote, Driver wrote: “I chose to abstain from voting on the budget because I didn’t support the percentage of 1.75% from its introduction. That’s no secret. I made it very clear from the start that I was not in favor. My mind hadn’t changed about that. I still believe we would have been better off with the first budget presented of 1.9%.” O’Reilly did not respond to the request.


Fact check: Both the 27% reduction in the budget’s debt service along with Mr. Colavita’s expressed expectation that the District can fund at least $2 million to reserves is consistent with MercerMe’s previous reporting that stated that this budget pays down district debt “a full year in advance and the District still has enough money to fund an additional $2 million to reserve.”

In a letter, Linthorst and Board vice president Jessica Grillo disputed the MercerMe reporting for Capital Reserves. They stated that the Capital Reserve Account “is slated to have a balance of $4.3M once this year’s projects are completed.” They implied the $6.4 million balance that MercerMe quoted from a district slide overstated the District’s expected Capital Reserve Balance.

In response to MercerMe’s request last week, Colavita emailed MercerMe the official User Friendly Budget filed with the State, which affirms that the end of school year Capital Reserve Estimated Balance 06/30/2021 is budgeted to be $7,912,019.

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