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What the HVRSD BOE did over summer vacation

by Amie Rukenstein

In June, the HVRSD Board of Education went back to in-person meetings and have been posting the videos of the meetings on youtube.  We here at MercerMe had a busy summer, but recently sat down to sift through the many hours of meetings that happened since June to give you a brief overview of what the BOE has been doing.

At its June 21 meeting, the last that was held on zoom, Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith reflected about a year under COVID. He talked about the challenges of operating under such stressful circumstances and congratulated the staff on a job well done.

The Board of Education authorized the transfer of an amount not to exceed $3.8 million of “unanticipated excess current revenue or unexpended appropriations into reserve accounts,” subject to the annual audit. Board member Bill Herbert noted that previously, the Board expected to transfer not more than $2.5 million into reserves and asked Business Administrator Robert Colavita to explain the additional $1.3 million of surplus.

Colavita explained that much of the additional surplus was pandemic-related from savings in transportation, facilities, and special education, however, he reported that there had been savings in every department. The final decision about what to do with this large surplus will happen in November, after the audit.

Transferring the money into capital reserve limits the use of the money to facilities and new capital projects, or to pay down debt. It will no longer be able to be used for general spending such as for salaries, benefits, or students’ programs. The reserve amount has increased dramatically from 2016 when the balance maintained was around $4 million to 2020 when the audited balance was almost $8 million. Generally, other comparably sized school districts do not hold this much in capital reserve.

In July, the Board said goodbye to long-time HVRSD Superintendent Dr. Tom Smith. The Board spent quite a bit of time thanking Smith and extolling his qualifications and then warmly welcoming incoming Superintendent Dr. Rosetta Treece. 

High school history teacher Dana Heller came with a large group of students to explain a time capsule that archived materials about school during COVID 19 project they had been working on to help the students understand that what happens now is history in the making. “This is a special community and I hope this project was able to capture that,” Heller said. The project was a joint effort with the Hopewell Museum and the Hopewell Valley Historical Society. For more information click here.

August saw Dr. Treece at her first meeting as Superintendent. Treece opened the meeting talking about the challenges of COVID-19 as they anticipated the beginning of school. She noted that 75% of students eligible for vaccinations had been vaccinated and more than 90% of all staff had been vaccinated, regardless of the fact that the District cannot mandate vaccinations for staff. She congratulated the staff on achieving normalcy during COVID as much as possible.

She also talked about the research that she has done, starting with reporting from the American Academy for Pediatrics, regarding the State’s mandate for masks in school and the special circumstances in which masks can be removed. And she provided a list of resources for the public to use in understanding the District’s policy. Director of Facilities Tom Quinn also spoke about the extensive systems they used to keep the schools sanitary. Later in the meeting, Treece spoke about how getting kids vaccinated, as the vaccine becomes available, will eventually change the masking and quarantine protocols. A number of people from the public spoke about their opinions about masking and quarantining.

September welcomed a new school year and all the challenges and opportunities it presents. Both Linhorst and Treece thanked everyone from teachers to staff to bus drivers to first responders during Hurricane Ida to the school nurse team who do contact tracing for COVID to parents and guardians for contributing to making the start of the school year run smoothly. Treece reminded parents to keep kids home if they have any symptoms of illness at all and to quarantine if your family travels out of state. The District has applied for voluntary free testing for COVID to become available on school site soon. The District will run a free booster clinic for those age 65 or older or who are medically fragile at Hopewell Elementary School on November 4.

A number of staff changes were announced, including notably: From within the District, Dr. Scott Bretell was promoted to be Director of the STEM program and Courtney Underwood was promoted to be a Vice Principal of Central High School. The District also hired Anson Smith from Hunterdon Central High School also as a CHS Vice Principal. The Board welcomed Sam Neal, the student representative to the Board for this school year.

There was discussion regarding the nation-wide shortage in bus drivers. At the working meeting September 13, Colavita expressed a dire need for more bus drivers, especially in light of roads and bridges that were washed out during Hurricane Ida. At the September 20 regular meeting, Treece echoed that transportation improvements are needed generally and to respond to a long held wish to change school start times and to reinstate late busses. She noted that the pay HVRSD offers bus drivers is low compared to other districts and that the District hopes to rectify that in the near future.

The Board gratefully accepted a $6,000 anonymous donation for soccer shelters to be used specifically for girls soccer but also available to any other team that uses the turf as a home field.

In budget news, Vicky Pilitsis, director of curriculum and instruction, noted that spending is down approximately $400,000 from last year, mostly in the area of education supplies. Colavita further explained that last year there was a major technology “refresh” and that would not need to be done again this year.

In public comment, a number of people again offered their opinions about student mask wearing.

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