Hopewell Valley Regional School District faces rising costs in health benefits and transportation

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Hopewell Valley Regional School District, like many school districts statewide and nationally, is not immune to rising costs associated with inflation and transportation.

Health benefits, transportation, property and causality insurance were just some of the drivers of Hopewell Valley school district’s increased costs highlighted by Robert Colavita, school board business administrator and board secretary. The projected 2023-24 school year budget totals $100.5 million.

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Colavita spoke during the public hearing for the tentative budget on March 13. A formal public hearing on the school budget will be held on April 24.

“We are looking at a 5 percent increase in our total operating expenses going forward driven largely by our increases in health benefits and transportation,” Colavita said. “We are using more [surplus] to balance our budget next year. The use of surplus is about $3 million.”

Property owners in Hopewell Township, Hopewell Borough and Pennington are expected to face increases in their school taxes.

According to Colavita, Hopewell Borough is projected to have a seven-cent increase in their tax rate this year moving it to $1.82 per $100 of assessed valuations; and Hopewell Township will see a three-cent increase and Pennington’s tax rate is projected to increase to $1.76 per $100 of assessed valuations.

“Health insurance [costs] was a huge driver. The inflation associated with health insurance right now is increasing at a great level, as well as folks going back to the doctor after staying away during the COVID-19 pandemic years,” he said.

Transportation is another huge driver of the budget, Colavita said. The district transports 3,000 students every school day.

“Bus route renewals according to the CPI (consumer price index) are looking at a 6 percent increase this year driven by driver shortages and fuel increases. We are fortunate in this district that we have been able to attract drivers, but our contracted agencies have not been able to do that,” Colavita said.

The costs for fuel are not just associated with transportation, but for heating school district buildings. Electric and gas have increased in cost, according to Colavita.

Unanticipated facilities and maintenance costs to school district buildings is also a cost driver in the budget.

“We talked at our last meeting about a sewer issue at Timberlane Middle School that we did not foresee, which can be up to a $250,000 project. We have to kind of budget for those as much as we can to address those,” Colavita said.

Special education, especially out of district tuition, curriculum and instruction, staffing and property and casualty insurance were other drivers spotlighted by Colavita.

“Property and casualty insurance like our health benefit insurance is increasing. Workers’ compensation has become more liberal than it has in the past almost doubling our premium we pay for workers compensation,” he said, noting they are a member of a 300-district consortium for marketplace casualty and health benefit insurance.

The school district has 3,449 students currently enrolled, which is stable now, according to the school district.

“We are looking at stability right now for the next several years before some planned increases are due to come due to some construction being done in the township,” Colavita said. “We should start seeing [increases in] students enter as early as next year.”

There are also 431 teachers and 272 staff and 24 administrators within the district.

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