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School levy tax highly debated issue

By Staff | Oct 29, 2010

Shepherdstown residents and others across the county debate the renewal of the school levy tax as Election Day approaches, Nov. 2.

According to Jefferson County School Board Vice President Gary Kable, “It takes a community to educate a child, and the funding of an education takes a community too.”

This is what he would like the citizens of Jefferson County to remember as they vote yes or no for the renewal of the school levy tax.

The tax has been in place in Jefferson County since 1946 and is currently 25 percent of the County’s operating budget for schools. As Kable explained at a meeting of concerned citizens held last week in the Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department’s fire hall, the levy will continue to generate between $18 million and $20 million dollars for area schools if renewed, to fund things like textbooks, summer and after-school instruction, as well as the supplemental salary of teachers and other school employees.

Without the tax, Kable insists Jefferson County will be forced to operate at the state minimum requirement for West Virginia schools, relying instead on funds provided by the state alone and the local money generated from fees and table games- a fraction of the amount currently furnished by the levy.

In this case, supporters of the renewal tax argue that Jefferson County parents would be forced to foot the bill for the books and supplies necessary to teach their children each year and that the quality of education would drop.

Shepherdstown Elementary School Principal, Suzanne Offutt, who attended the meeting last Thursday night, said of the state minimum, “They say all you need is a classroom teacher. We know that isn’t a good quality education.”

In addition, supporters worry that the county would have the trouble finding qualified teachers.

“All of our personnel would lose their salary supplement provided by the levy,” Kable said.

He added, “We are the hole in the donut. We don’t have the (property) tax base to compete with these other (out of state) counties. We need this to continue to attract qualified teachers.”

But some members of the community disagree with the levy’s suggested benefits and are working for its repeal.

A small movement of anonymous citizens has organized an effort to vote down the renewal of the levy tax, and have begun to solicit public support. The group launched a blog at www.noexcesslevy.blogspot.com as a forum to articulate their views and the Facebook page, “Repeal Jefferson County’s Excess Levy (Tax).”

According to the site, the group’s main contention with what they call a “form of double taxation” is that it disproportionately taxes Jefferson County residents to provide funds for the whole state without guidelines to determine how the money is spent- a claim vehemently denied by supporters who assert that the funds collected from the tax stay in the county and “is 100 percent operating expenses,” or those explicitly used for teachers’ salaries and the day-to-day running of schools.

John Shoedel, a Harpers Ferry resident, asks the citizens of Jefferson County to vote no on the school levy.

“Last year the school board and its members were all for the table games,” Shoedel said. “They were going to be the cure-all, and now the board comes to ask for more money. Charleston decided that the table game money can only be used for capitol expenses. Did the board not realize that when they chose to back the games? Why not devise a better bill allowing the board to use the money on what they need?”

Shoedel does not belong to the “No Excess Levy Group.” He disagrees with their choice to remain anonymous.

“Now, even before the votes are counted, the board is saying if the levy is not passed, they will just table the same levy next year. How about cost cutting? Belt tightening?”

He added, “Sixty plus years of this levy and the end product is our school system. Until mismanagement no longer rules the day, vote ‘no’ on the school levy.”

Supporters of the renewal tax hope to maintain the funding necessary to provide the type of education they feel all residents of Jefferson County need and deserve, especially in an economic recession.

“If the education system fails, it will be a reflection on the community. If our education system fails, our economic development fails,” Kable said.

A spokesperson for “No Excess Levy” could not be reached for comment.