Kristin McLaughlin, mayor of Hopewell Township, Joe Lawver, mayor of Pennington Borough, and Paul Anzano, mayor of Hopewell Borough, joined together in a statement to voice their concern over the Hopewell Valley Regional School District’s tentative budget, which is scheduled for a final public hearing on May 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Previously, the mayors had issued a joint statement thanking the State of New Jersey for providing Hopewell Valley with the highest percent increase of school aid in Mercer County.
Given that the Hopewell Valley Regional School District is experiencing the most significant declines in enrollment in Mercer County, the mayors suggested in their prior release that they were hopeful that Hopewell Valley municipalities would experience property tax relief through this increase in state aid.
Instead, the board of education recently passed a tentative budget that includes a 5.27% general fund tax levy increase, which is more than double the increase of other Mercer County public school districts.
In their statement, the mayors said:
“We have always supported our schools and take great pride in their quality. It’s one of the key reasons that families choose to move to Hopewell Valley. As a group, we publicly partnered with the district to support its $36-million referendum several years ago.”
“We were given assurances at the time by the board and administration that the referendum would provide a solid financial foundation for the future and help keep the school’s long-term operating budget in-check,” McLaughlin said. “The district’s own financial reports indicate that it is well positioned financially, without the need for a significant operating budget increase. As an example, increases for our outstanding teachers have already been factored into the district’s operating expenses. In fact, mediated fact finding has been completed and our teachers have shared that a deal is imminent.”
“Why aren’t we seeing the promised savings from the referendum?” Lawver said.
Anzano said he is concerned about the school budget and its effects on the Hopewell Borough residents, for the upcoming school year and beyond.
“There is a spending trend that is difficult to justify, in my opinion, and I am interested in learning more of the reasons for the tax increase and the initiatives planned or implemented to slow that trend,” he said. “There is a process for preparing a budget and for the public to comment on it and that is at the school board level during the hearings. I would encourage every resident who is interested and similarly concerned to attend the school budget hearing on May 6.”
During the five years ending June 2018, the mayors said, the school board was able to amass more capital reserve and surplus savings than other regular Mercer County school districts of similar size, according to their audited (and publicly available) fund balances.
“There does not seem to be a pressing reason for such a large infusion of more taxpayer funded cash,” Lawver said.
School board vice president Adam Sawicki voted against the school budget increase and offered an alternative budget proposal.
“I recommend that the community consider this sensible alternative as it maintains the same programs and staffing levels as the Board’s tentative budget, while relying less on new taxes,” Lawver said.
The mayors say the recommended alternative budget better balances use of surplus funds over the next three years. Sawicki has also suggested looking for other cost-savings and reducing known inefficiencies.
According to the 2019 enrollment report for the Hopewell Valley Regional Schools, 291 seniors will be graduating this year, and in the fall 210 kindergarteners will enter district schools. Unless dramatic move-ins occur over the summer, there will be 80 (or 2.4%) fewer students. This adds to a multi-year trend that has seen enrollment fall by more than 500 students.
Spending significantly more taxpayer money on fewer enrolled students is not responsible, the mayors said, and higher taxes may very well contribute to additional enrollment declines in the years ahead.
Prior to this year’s proposed increase, HVRSD overtook other districts in Mercer County and now has the highest per pupil spending in the county. “We strongly encourage the school district not to compound this problem by imposing an excessive tax increase on residents,” McLaughlin said.
The mayors encourage residents of Hopewell Valley to learn more by going to the school board’s May 6 public hearing.
“I would encourage our residents to ask questions and communicate their concerns with our duly elected school board member,” Anzano said. “We elect school board members to be the voice of the community on school district matters, and this budget cycle is no exception.”