CHARLES TOWN – A varied slate of candidates have filed, so the ballot to decide who wins more than a dozen public offices is ready to be set for the May 12 primary.
What isn’t determined is whether the Jefferson County Board of Education will place a bond referendum on the ballot asking voters to approve millions in financing for various school construction and maintenance projects.
Shepherdstown resident Jim Schmitt urged the school board on Monday to pursue the referendum that was placed on hold last August amid controversy over the Rockwool factory site.
Schmitt said the county needs new schools—particularly schools in Shepherdstown and in Ranson—that might be constructed with the public bond financing voters are apt to approve.
Two schools are particularly needed in Shepherdstown and Ranson, Schmitt said. The county has purchased separate pieces of land to build those new schools, he said.
“I’m trying to keep this train rolling,” he said. “In order to do that I know the county needs a lot of money and to float a bond.”
A decision to pursue the voter referendum would need to be made soon, Schmitt said. County officials want 90 days notice to prepare for a referendum on an upcoming election ballot, he pointed out.
“I would leave it to the school board to educate the public on the needs for these two schools,” he said. “This county is notorious for passing the bonds, and that’s a good thing, but I don’t want the Rockwool incident to stop that. That would be a real black eye for everybody.”
That Rockwool incident involved the school board filing a condemnation lawsuit last April to force the Danish company to sell its 196-acre factory site near Kearneysville to the school system.
The school board had been under pressure since the summer of 2018 from residents opposing the stone wool insulation factory—to be located a few hundred yards from North Jefferson Elementary School. Then school officials announced—21 months after Rockwool announced it would build the factory—that they needed the factory site to build a $14.2 million Regional Student Support Center.
By that point, Rockwool officials said the company had already spent more than $47 million on what would be a $150 million facility, which has been expected to begin operations by the year’s end.
Never previously discussed publicly before the condemnation, school board members said the student center would house various special education services and programs. Rockwool fought the condemnation in federal court, and the confrontation ended with a closed settlement.
The condemnation left many taxpayers skeptical and wary of school system actions, proposals and spending, some school board members acknowledged. The public backlash caused the school board to delay a special $56 million bond referendum planned for Oct. 26.
“We’ve passed bond levies for I don’t know how many years, but apparently this is not the time to do one right now,” school board member Gary Kable said last summer about scheduling a bond referendum.
“I believe that we have some bridge-building to do,” agreed Arthena Roper, a school board member at the time. “Hopefully, we can take this nine months and earn that trust and to build those bridges back.”
On Monday, Schmitt, speaking during a public comment period during a school board meeting, said that bond money was still needed to repair or replace old and aging buildings. He urged the school board to begin educating the public about the financing need, but said the regional student center should be left out of any proposed bond financing plans.
“The fiasco that that created with the eminent domain with Rockwool—which I’m not getting into—,” Schmitt said, “has left such a bad taste in the voter’s mouth … I’m not saying we don’t need a social-emotional facility in this county. I know we do. … But we sorely need to start the physical ball rolling for the construction of these[Shepherdstown and Ranson] schools.”
State open government meetings laws prevented school board officials Monday from discussing whether to schedule a bond referendum because the topic was not on the meeting’s agenda.
After the meeting, Hans Fogle, the public information officer for Jefferson County Schools, said he is unaware of any date that has been set to have that discussion.