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Excess Levy forum educates voters

By Staff | Nov 16, 2015

Tuesday evening, the League of Women Voters held a special forum at Wright Denny school in Charles Town to discuss the Jefferson County Board of Education Excess Levy.

Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson, superintendent of Jefferson County Schools and Scott Sudduth, Board of Education president each gave opening remarks and then answered questions from those in attendance.

Dr. Gibson gave a brief overview of student population in Jefferson County, noting the county serves 9,148 students, and grew by 82 students this school year, which makes Jefferson one of only eight counties in the state with growth. However, she did note that there is a county-wide increase in students coming from poverty, which is a notable difference from other times of growth.

“These students (coming from poverty) are perfectly capable, they have amazing gifts, but they often don’t have the same opportunities some of their peers have,” said Gibson, “so it’s our responsibility as a school system to support them and give them those opportunities so that they can reach the same achievement levels.”

And according to a Jefferson County Schools status report, those levels are pretty good. In 2015 West Virginia instituted a new achievement test, WVGSA, and Jefferson County had the third-highest reading scores and the fifth-highest math scores in all grade levels in the state.

Four year graduation rates have increased from 81 percent in 2011, to 91 percent in 2015.

“Despite the outstanding efforts by our teaching staff, administrators, bus drivers, custodians and the people that support these kids every day, it’s still not good enough,” said Gibson. “We have worked to set goals for this coming year, most of them focused on mathematics. We will not be content until we are the highest performing school system in the state of West Virginia in every single category. And quite frankly, our children need to be able to compete (academically) with any other state and any other nation to reach their personal ambitions.”

Gibson went on to explain that most people understand and accept that there are costs associated with educating children, but people also want those resources to be available at the best price they can be.

The national per-pupil average expenditure is $12,401 per year. Jefferson County’s cost per-pupil is $11,215, which is also slightly lower than the state average in West Virginia. Even though Jefferson is the wealthiest county in the state, it’s expenditures per student ranks 31 out of 55 counties.

“We think Jefferson offers a very good return on investment for our citizens, based on the academic statistics,” Gibson stated. “Folks are getting a school system that scores in the top five in reading and math in every subject in every grade level, while paying at a rate of 31 out of 55 per-pupil cost.”

The county education program has seen a decrease in revenue over the last several years. There has been a 50 percent reduction in impact fees, a 40 percent reduction in revenue from table gaming, and a one percent reduction in state revenue. Officials say this has put a strain on the education budget and has forced them to cut expenditures to live withing their means, while still growing.

In response, the central office has eliminated or reduced eight positions, saving $346,000 this fiscal year.

The excess levy is 22 percent of the education budget and helps to buffer the loss of revenue from other sources. However, the amount of the levy itself has reduced from $20,095,312 in 2010 to $19,146,219 in 2015 due to a slight decrease in property values.

Sudduth explained, “The tax rate of 45.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value will not change. This is not a new tax. We are not adding a property tax. This is a continuation of a commitment that was previously made by voters.”

“One of the very important things we’ve tried to stress about the levy,” Gibson said, “is that this in not a levy focused on things. It’s not a levy focused on buildings or materials. 91 percent of this excess levy supports people/positions, substitutes, benefits for people.”

Gibson shared the statistic that currently West Virginia ranks 51 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of teacher pay. In other words, dead last. Our neighboring states, Virginia and Maryland rank second and tenth, respectively for teacher salary. Gibson praised Jefferson County teachers for their dedication, fortitude and love they have for their students to stay and teach here.

Some audience questions:

Why an expensive special election for the levy?

Sudduth replied that the board had to look carefully at the timing of the levy. The state gave permission for five year renewals of the levy, as opposed to four years. This is the first time it’s been on a 5 year cycle, and expires at the end of the school board’s budget year. The board would have preferred to wait until primaries in May, but the state requires a budget plan for the next academic year by March 1. The state also requires the board to provide notices if they are expecting any reductions in expenditures, staff, etc.

“We have to know what 22 percent of our budget will be March. We cant wait until May for the election. It would have been irresponsible on the part of the board to not have done everything we could to secure–to know what our long-term financial situations are.”

Who determines what the excess levy is spent on?

Sudduth answered that the board spends a great deal of time assessing recommendations from the superintendent and the needs of the children in the county. Some of the things that the levy pays are librarians, teachers, band, coaches, substitutes, books, technology, libraries, some benefits and 4-H.

“One of the areas that West Virginia actually leads the nation is in our 4-H programs. They are the envy of the land grant universities around the country. West Virginia has an outstanding commitment to 4-H, and although it’s a small amount, we have historically provided some of this levy to support 4-H.”

What was the percentage by which the levy won the last election?

The 2010 levy results were, 62.1 percent ‘yes’, and 38.6 percent ‘no’. Sudduth added that there were 9,000 ‘yes’votes.

Do you think that by calling this the ‘excess levy’ it leads people to believe that this is money beyond the regular budget and would therefore lead people to think it unnecessary?

Sudduth replied, “Absolutely, and if we could change the name we would. But it is set in state code and called an “excess levy.”

Is the levy the only item to be voted upon on Dec. 12?

Sudduth replied, “Yes.”

How many counties in West Virginia have excess levies?

Sudduth replied that 38 counties have the levy in place. There have been two recent votes. Mineral county just voted to renew their levy, while Randolph County did not vote for renewal. Locally, Morgan and Berkeley counties voted for renewal.

What will happen if the levy fails?

Sudduth replied “If the levy fails the superintendent and her team would have a difficult task of making recommendations for some pretty serious cuts. Certainly music and arts programs. We would not be able to support the level of counseling services currently provided in elementary schools. At least one, if not all the additional supplemental salary benefits to teachers would be eliminated. This is 22 percent of our budget. There would be serious consequences.”

For more frequently asked questions about the levy, visit the Jefferson County Schools website boe.jeff.k12.wv.us/Levy2015

The excess levy vote will be held on December 12, with a voter registration deadline of Nov. 23.