At the Hopewell Township Committee meeting, representatives from the Hopewell Valley Regional School District presented the 2017-2018 school year school budget.
“We are aware that we are responsible for a good part of the property taxes in the Township so we take this opportunity to share how we spend the taxpayers’ money,” said Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith. “We take a lot of pride and we do see it as a return on the investment in the tax dollars given to us.”
Smith outlined in the presentation the five categories in which the return on investment is measured by the District: 1) the whole child; 2) academics; 3) the arts and athletics; 4) finance and facilities; and 5) accolades. (See graphic below for specifics)
With regard to the finances and facilities, specifically construction from funds approved by September 27, 2016 referendum vote, Smith said, “The work is happening and we’re pretty happy about that.”
Some changes in the District include a shift in standard based report cards to provide a better view of the students’ progress grades K-5 and revising grading practices in grades 6-12 to focus more on content mastery.
Smith noted that he is particularly proud of the District’s a move toward character education and cultural competency. “It is important that [students] learn the digital foot prints they are leaving,” said Smith. “We are trying to teach kids to live in an online world.”
Want to follow along? Here is a link to the District’s budget presentation slideshow.
With respect to the overall budget, “The largest increase is our debt service at 28%. General fund increase is 3.31%,” explained Smith, who also provided the history.
Committeeman John Hart said to Smith, “You said you are below the 2% but then you are hitting us with a 20 million dollar referendum. How is that considered 2% — that’s a pretty big chunk… and it is a little misleading.”
Smith explained how the debt is structured and that the debt service will “fall off” in 2021, meaning that the the debt from the construction of Stony Brook Elementary School and Timberlane Middle School will be paid off. “Then, we are going to fold in the referendum with a tax savings to the taxpayers,” explained Smith. “If we didn’t float the referendum and just paid it through our budget, we wouldn’t have gotten the 40% reimbursement from the State. And we provided the community with an opportunity to vote on it — and it passed.”
Township mayor, Kevin Kuchinski urged, “Now that we’ve paid off Stony Brook and Timberlane, it would be great to return those monies to the taxpayer.”
Smith also explained items “out of the District’s control” such as fixed costs, which account for 75% of the budget. “Staffing and benefits have increased over the 2% cap so we’ve had to look for reductions in other ways,” explained Smith. “With 75% of the budget well over 2%, I think we’ve done a good job balancing it all.”
Mayor Kuchinski responded that he is looking to continue to partner with the schools with Safe Routes to Schools and explained that the Township representatives are hearing a lot of feedback about a hazardous bussing policy. “I think we want to think through how we can make that better for our residents going forward,” said Kuchinski, to which Smith responded that the District has investigated transportation concerns.
With regard to State aid, HVRSD gets some of the lowest state aid in the County. “This means that the taxpayers of Hopewell Valley subsidize the District more than surrounding municipalities to their districts,” said Smith, explaining the variety of factors established in that calculation including number of free meals provided by the school to students in need.
Over the past year, Hopewell Valley has seen an increase in ratables, meaning that there has been an increase of overall value of properties, a number assessed by the Mercer County Tax Assessor’s Office.
Also determined by the Mercer County Tax Accessor is the “percentage share” or how the school tax is distributed between the three municipalities comprising the District. The graph below shared by HVRSD shows that Hopewell Township’s enrollment makes up for 78.87% of the District. However, the Township is paying 83% of the tax levy.
“I want to put this in the clearest context: We as a body support everything you are doing for the good effort for our children and supporting education but I have a problem with this slide,” said Mayor Kuchinski. “If you look at it, Hopewell Township is paying 83% of the District tax levy for 78% of the students. I don’t think it is fair. We need to explore solutions.”
“We can revisit the formula with the Boroughs because it does not make sense for Hopewell Township to pay 44% more per student than those in the two Boroughs,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way. I think we need to sit down with the two Boroughs to get at a fair price. It amounts to 3.3 million dollars that the Township is carrying above its actual fair share for the schools. We have to pursue every avenue to bring this relationship into line.”
“I appreciate that and this has been an issue we have grappled with for many years,” said Committeewoman Vanessa Sandom. “I think there are a lot of things we need to talk with the Boroughs about this might be the biggest.”
HVRSD Business Administrator, Bob Colavita explained that the methods of calculation are either percent shares or by student enrollment and that change the method that there would need to be a referendum vote in all effected municipalities. “Because of the wealth of Hopewell Township, the Township takes a bigger burden,” explained Colavita.
Mayor Kuchinski expressed a desire to seek out the “student enrollment” calculation method. Committeeman John Hart spoke about the perceived wealth in the Township, number of foreclosures, and the inevitability of affordable housing necessitating additional schools.
Committeewoman Julie Blake thanked Smith and Colavita, “Thank you for a great presentation and I want to express gratitude for one of the Township’s biggest assets.”
“We know it is a great school,” said Committeeman Hart. “I’m just asking you do a lot more for a little less.”
“You are hearing support from us and for what you do for our kids and how that promotes positive values and property values,” concluded Mayor Kuchinski. “I think there are some issues of fairness — broken systems at the state and regional. And [with Hopewell Township paying more], it is putting pressure on us — on our seniors, on people just starting out and we need to address that together moving forward to make sure that Hopewell Township remains the marquee community that it is. I look forward to working with the Boroughs or at the state level. And we’re willing to work with you. [Spoke of potential shared services.] I think we should continue working toward that.”