CHARLES TOWN — Jefferson County voters are “very uninformed and in a bad, angry, combative mood,” and many aren’t likely to approve an extra property tax levy or a school bond on the general election ballot, according to Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson.
“You know we’re doing this in a very difficult time — a lot of fear, a lot of anger,” Gibson said. “A lot of people going to the polls who have no idea what schools are, what a levy is, nor do they care.”
Gibson offered that assessment last week while explaining to school employees why they should support continuing existing annual property tax assessments totaling about $23 million for the school system.
School officials are asking voters to continue the existing “excess,” or extra, property tax levies given to the school system for another five years. The proposed excess levy sought would have Jefferson County homeowners shoulder about $112 million or more—depending on the county’s overall assessed property values every year — in additional property taxes from this coming July through July 2025.
A “regular” annual property tax levy generates about $20 million for the school system.
Gibson has previously said a failed excess levy would be a big financial blow for the school system and may likely trigger layoffs if the funding isn’t eventually approved. Two current property tax levies fund about 40 percent of the schools system’s $107 million budget.
Anticipating that the levy fails at the polls, however, the superintendent said school officials would immediately request a special referendum in March to seek voter approval again. “By law, we have to have a 90-day notice before we can trigger a special election,” she said. “The day after the election we would be petitioning to run a special election in March. We’ll run it again.”
Gibson expressed confidence that the levy would pass during the special election, when no candidates will be vying for public offices. In the past, school supporters have overwhelmingly turned out for special school referendums not held during primaries or general elections.
“The only other time I’ve been here for a levy — because it happens only once every five years — we ran a special election and we got an almost 80 percent ‘yes’ vote,” she said. “If you narrow it down to just the people whose lives school touches — the parents and the kids and the staff — we’re hitting at 80, 90 percent, easy.”
Also on the current general ballot is a proposal to issue $43.7 million in long-term bond debt to build two new elementary schools and otherwise mostly renovate and repair existing school buildings.
During the Zoom meeting last week with school employees, Gibson said she supported citizens and school staff expressing their views at the ballot box — whether or not they support the levy or bond.
Teachers and school service workers normally are reliable advocates of school funding measures. However, many recently became alienated from the current levy and bond proposals after the school board in June approved salary raises for 37 school administrators totaling $310,000.
Front-line school employees shouldering new responsibilities and heavier workloads during the coronavirus pandemic were not included in the “stipend” salary raises funded from the excess levy.
Moreover, the salary raises were included as a single page within 325 pages of routine personnel policy updates that the school approved.
After the administrators’ salary raises became known in July, school board members Kathy Skinner and Laurie Ogden told the Spirit that the raises were granted to recruit and retain highly qualified central office administrators. However, the school board has not publicly addressed in an open meeting why the raises were given and how the amounts given were determined.
Three other school board members who voted for the raises — Mark Osbourn, Gary Kable and former member Wendy Whitehair-Lochner — have not yet spoken of the raises in public.
In reaction, some school employee leaders have urged teachers and service staff to reject the levy or the bond or both to send a message of disapproval to the school board and school officials.
Meanwhile, Jefferson County Perspective, a conservative citizens group (formerly called Jefferson County Prosperity), has been actively campaigning against the levy and the bond for several weeks. In an email sent this week to 9,000 county residents, the group offered arguments about why voters should reject the levy and the bond. The reasoning offered in a headline: “It Forces the Board of Education to Give Teachers and Support Staff a Better Deal.”
Echoing the views of a past West Virginia Education Association president, Jefferson County Perspective maintains that rejecting the levy and the bond would pressure the school board to hold open and transparent discussions with teachers and service workers over how the excess levy taxes should be allocated.
“Teachers should demand that the Board of Education shift funds away from their own pockets and investigate additional ways to increase teacher and support personnel salary,” the group’s digital flyer states.
Before the administrator salary raises were approved, public skepticism over school funding requests were already running high, high enough to prompt wary school officials to postpone a special referendum on the facilities bond scheduled for October 2019.
This followed the school board’s abrupt decision to seize, by eminent domain, 130 acres where Rockwool has been building a $150 million mineral wool insulation factory.
Some citizens had been questioning whether the factory’s pollution emissions could harm people or the environment, flooding school board meetings in the process. State environmental protection officials reassured that the facility would pose no hazard to anyone or the surrounding environment.
Nevertheless, the school system initiated proceedings in Jefferson County Circuit Court during the summer of 2019 to force Rockwool to accept $1.4 million for the factory site. The Danish company won an injunction in federal court to temporarily block the property seizure. Afterward, the school board retreated by signing an undisclosed legal settlement with Rockwool to end the property taking.
Attempting to acquire the factory site — a decision many observers consider an impulse to rescue the community from the factory — backfired over questions of how the school board could afford the condemnation and whether school officials fully considered the implications of their actions.
The school board spent more than $120,000 on legal fees before abandoning the condemnation proceedings. Had the school board lost its fight with Rockwool in federal court, county taxpayers could have been made to pay even more to compensate Rockwool for its legal costs, school officials acknowledged.
Earlier this year, after deciding to place both the bond and the levy renewal on the general election ballot for voter approval, school officials said they would initiate an information campaign to educate voters about the measures. Little evidence of the campaign emerged until parents last week received a two-page summary about the levy.
The summary points out that the excess levy funds 22 percent of the school system’s $107 million budget and 14 percent of teacher and support staff salaries. The levy also funds vision and dental benefits for school employees.
During a school board meeting on Monday, six days after early voting began in the county, Kable read from prepared remarks to share his views on why supporting the levy and bond was necessary and responsible. He also chastised groups lobbying against the school funding measures.
“Everyone’s entitled to their own thoughts and beliefs,” he said. “But those promoting the defeat of these two levies are not thinking straight. Their mendacity will crush the best school system in this state and, I dare say, in the surrounding counties.”
Approving the proposed 15-year bond debt would pay for a new elementary school in Shepherdstown and Ranson that are desperately needed, Kable said. “A bond is the only way we have to do that [school construction], and it is the least expensive in the long run,” he said.
Normally a taciturn board member, Kable called the excess levy “an absolute necessity” to funding the modern instruction that students, parents and residents demand. He said county voters have been approving excess levies since 1946 to supplement state funding that has been inadequate. Since taking control over county school systems in 1933, state officials have continually added program mandates without providing sufficient funding for those mandates, he said.
“That is why we have the excess levy,” he added.
Allowing the school system to degrade from inadequate funding would also be shortsighted, Kable said, saying that would gradually cause an exodus from the county of families seeking a better education for their children.
“So now we have a group that claims to be improving the county by demanding that our citizens kill both the special levy and the bond levy,” he continued. “That is both stupid and stingy.”
In its blast email sent out this week, Jefferson County Perspective contends the school board is wasting taxpayer money by offering “above market pay with little money going to teachers and support staff.”
The group also accuses the school board of over hiring central administration staff relative to the school system’s 8,900 students.
Citing recent research from The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a conservative nonprofit group, the email maintains that Jefferson County would be saving over $11 million annually — enough to provide its teachers with a $19,000 salary increase — if it kept its staff in proportion to the growth of student population over the last decade.
“The choice is simple: if you care about students, teachers and support staff, vote ‘NO’ on the levy and force the Board of Education to work with teachers to find solutions that will improve the salary, working and learning conditions of everyone.”
Jefferson County Perspective urges in its campaign against the levy and the bond. “Voting yes is simply a vote to continue waste, mismanagement and substandard [front-line employee] pay.”