The Frequently Asked Questions below have been assembled based on questions received during public meetings and/or questions submitted via email. The district has provided answers with the best information available and will continue to add questions questions as the Bond Referendum presentations continue. Please check back often for updated questions and answers. Click here to ask a question about the referendum.
Why do we need to do this referendum now?
The Hopewell Valley Regional Board of Education spent three years completing a comprehensive review of all district facilities. This review is well beyond the state required inspections and included a detailed review of every facet of the our facilities as well as an evaluation of building capacities and enrollment projections. This review provided in-depth inspections showing structural risks, water leakage, inefficient utilities and other items that require prompt attention. Over $60 million of needed projects were identified across our district facilities. The Board of Education identified $35 million of critical projects that need to be addressed immediately.
Fiscally, the timing is prudent due to the following:
Why doesn’t the district pay for these repairs within the existing school budgets?
Like most school districts, HVRSD struggles to fit large dollar maintenance projects into their annual operating budgets. Hopewell Valley has followed the rules of a 2010 state law that caps general fund increases at a 2% each year, without voter approval. In fact, last year and this year our district’s annual increases were well below the cap – 0.9% and 0.8% respectively. Within that amount, the district has had to accommodate the typical rising costs of payroll, benefits, educational materials, contracted services, utilities and more.
Regular maintenance is constantly being done on all the buildings in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District. In fact, HVRSD spent more than $6 million on roofs and HVAC upgrades in the past few years. The roof, HVAC and window projects exceed what can be done through an annual budget.
The $35 million in project costs would not fit in current budget within cap (even over time) without significantly cutting academic staff and programs. Further, projects paid as part of our regular budget are ineligible for debt service aid which provides up to a 40% rebate on most maintenance projects. If voters approve the Bond Referendum, the state will give Hopewell Valley an estimated $12.3 million toward the costs. This will not occur if the projects are placed in our annual budget.
What if costs end up lower than the estimates?
State rules impose strict oversight. There are only two ways a district can use proceeds from a Bond Referendum: the money can be used to overcome cost increases for projects that were approved as part of the Bond Referendum, or it can be used to pay down the bond debt. The Board of Education intends to pay down debt when practical in order to reduce the impact to taxpayers.
What if costs end up higher than the estimates?
The district is working with a team of construction and financial experts who pay close attention to trends in bond rates and construction costs. Unless a significant issue arises, it is unlikely costs will exceed estimates. The estimates reflect careful planning and analysis which reflect the board’s desire to be realistic in our planning. The construction estimates are designed to err on the side of being conservative. Low estimates could be harmful and shortsighted. If estimates are lower than actual costs, the school board is still obligated to complete the projects within the Bond Referendum approved revenue. The school board does not want to be forced in a position of downgrading roofing material, HVAC components, window quality or interior finishes to be able to complete everything within an artificially low estimate.
What are the “soft costs” and why is the percentage set at 25 percent?
Soft costs include: construction contingencies, architect, engineers and consultant fees, construction administration, bonding and legal fees, inspections and utility fees and application, submission and permit. The age of Hopewell Valley’s buildings increases the chances that there will be unforeseen costs and complications. For that reason, the state’s Department of Education requires that a 25 percent cushion be built into the project estimates. Private entities might be able to provide lower numbers, but school boards seeking state approval have no choice but to estimate soft costs at 25 percent. In addition, the soft costs in Hopewell Valley’s estimates also include bond and election fees – costs that private entities don’t face. Please note that if “soft costs” are estimated and not incurred, actual costs may come in below estimates (see above).
What is Debt Service Aid, and how is it calculated?
Debt Service Aid is financial assistance from the State for specific school facilities projects. Hopewell Valley gets a very small amount of state aid for general operational costs, so Debt Service Aid on the repayment of bonds is one of the few ways local taxpayers can be compensated for some of the state taxes they pay. Not all costs qualify; they have to be tied to an educational program. For that reason, $4.9 million are not eligible for Debt Service Aid. Hopewell Valley wouldn’t get all the money right away. The aid is doled out year-by-year – as if the state is helping the district make its bond payments.
Officially, the State indicates that the Hopewell Valley Regional School District is eligible for Debt Service Aid to cover 40% of all project costs except the Arts and Wellness space. In a review of recent statewide projects, the State has not honored the 40% commitment and 34% is more realistic. In presentations and informational material, the district uses the lower, more realistic 34% figure. Should the State decide to fully fund their portion, the monies needed from the taxpayer will be reduced.
An important factor in this equation is the retirement of our current district debt from the 2005 TMS renovation. The district pays $4.9 million annually toward this debt. This debt will be paid off in August of 2021. The 2016 referendum debt of $1.7m that will replace the TMS bond will result in a significant decrease in the debt portion of the tax levy
Why can’t we use a series of smaller Bond Referendums to get this work done over time?
Our Board of Education members are sensitive to the cost of improvements. Over $60 million of needed project were identified. The Board of Education prioritized $35 million of critical projects to be addressed in this referendum. The remaining $25 million have been delayed. The currently identified projects should not be spaced over extended periods of time, because much of the work is critical for the safety and longevity of the buildings. For example, many roofs and windows need to be replaced within the next 3-5 years to avoid further damage. Delaying these projects will likely increase these costs and the potential damage to our existing infrastructure. Another important factor to note: every Bond Referendum consumes valuable staff time and incurs election-related costs. Repeated bond referendums mean more set-up costs, consulting fees and increased construction costs. The benefits of efficiencies of scale are reduced and potential for educational interruptions is increase. The focus of Hopewell Valley schools is on education our students – doing this once benefits all of us.
What happens if the Bond Referendum is not approved?
If voters do not approve the Bond Referendum on September 27, the Hopewell Valley school district will still have critical needs that cannot be paid for within the operating budget. The district would not be eligible for Debt Service Aid and would have to pay the entire cost of these projects. The only way Hopewell Valley can effectively pay for work of this magnitude is through the sale of bonds.
Most of the projects seem to be focused on the high school; is work in other schools included?
The referendum contains needed projects for each of our schools. In addition to the work at Central High School, Hopewell Elementary, Toll Gate Grammar and Timberlane will receive much-needed roof work and/or window replacements. Bear Tavern will receive restroom renovations. All schools will receive media center renovations and updated intercom/alert systems to improve student safety.
Why is it necessary to redesign the front entrance of Central High School?
The renovation of the Central High School front entrance focuses on two areas: safety and access. We are living in uncertain times and we must do all we can ensure safety and security. The renovation will provide a locking vestibule that will limit access to the building by anyone other than students and staff. In addition, the current front entrance prohibits access to individuals with limited mobility (either in wheelchairs or crutches). Individuals with mobility issues are relegated to a side entrance – this is not ADA compliant and is not consistent with our district’s mission to be inclusive for all students.
Do we need the new Arts and Wellness space?
The Black Box Theater provides a permanent teaching space for the Theatre Arts Program. Currently, we do not have a designated teaching space for our theatre classes. Several classes in our Theatre Arts program are being held in either the cafeteria, hallways, or the PAC lobby. In addition, the Black Box can be used for rehearsals, freeing up the PAC for other tasks. This teaching space may also be used for dance rehearsals and recitals, public speaking, and debates.
The Wellness Space provides space for the increase offerings of our physical education classes during the day. Often there are 60+ students in the same gym, grades 9-12, increasing the possibility of injury. The wellness space also provides an adaptive physical education space for our special needs students to be educated in a dedicated space.
The wellness space will also address equity concerns for female sports by providing a dedicated space for girls and boys volleyball during the spring and fall, and will provide a dedicated space for the wrestling program during the winter season. The space will also allow the wrestling mats and practices to be moved from the cafeteria/auxiliary gym.
The project also includes new rest rooms that will provide bathroom access for those who attend outdoor sporting events on the turf field or softball field without access to the rest of the building.
Is it possible to just repair the windows and patch the bricks at our older schools?
Many windows at Toll Gate Grammar and Hopewell Elementary are from the original construction and are beginning to fail. In addition to reduced efficiency and contributing to structural leaks, these are becoming a safety issue – making the opening and closing of windows difficult or dangerous. Buildings like Toll Gate and Hopewell Elementary have large attractive windows to let in natural light; however, they also let out valuable heat. The windows have been repaired repeatedly and the only option is a total replacement. Replacement windows will be architecturally similar and more efficient.
The brick repointing at Hopewell Elementary is needed to maintain the structural integrity of the building facade. The cracks in the mortar between the bricks allow water to seep through and into the internal structure of the building. During the winter, the water freezes and causes further damage.