CHARLES TOWN – County voters will be asked this November to approve a ballot measure to allow Jefferson County Schools to issue $43.5 million in 15-year bond debt for various school building improvement projects, including the construction of two new elementary schools.
Approving the bond call that the Jefferson County Board of Education put into a final form on Monday would place an extra assessment on next year’s county property tax bills. What county homeowners would pay would depend on the assessed value of their property.
For example, homeowners with a house valued at $250,000 would pay about $104 per year over the life of the bond, assuming bondholders are paid a projected 2.2 percent interest rate of return, according to a calculation that school board President Kathy Skinner provided.
“For something less than $10 a month, which is something that we can translate very clearly for folks—again once we can explain it and get their attention,” offered Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson.
The school system paid off $30 million in bond debt that voters had approved several years ago. Earlier, Skinner said about another $50 million to $60 million in new bonds could be issued without raising property taxes beyond what county residents currently pay.
The bond call or referendum will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot for approval along with another school system funding mechanism—an excess property tax levy estimated to generate $22.4 million for teacher salaries and benefits. The excess property tax levy would supplement $18.6 million in estimated revenue the school system will receive from automatic property tax assessments.
School officials are proposing to assess the maximum excess levy rate allowed by law, as they have for many years.
“The levy is already what [taxpayers] are already paying,” Gibson explained. “They already have a comfort and a knowledge of that. The bond would be something additional.”
If approved, the proposed bond call would provide $32.5 million to pay for a new elementary school in Shepherdstown and in Ranson and about $7.5 million to pay for building renovations or improvements.
Skinner said the county school system is in a good position to receive supplemental matching state funds from the West Virginia School Building Authority to help pay to construct the Shepherdstown and Ranson elementary schools. But she also acknowledged state funding is never guaranteed.
“We’ve done growth projections,” she said. “We’ve done everything that we can possibly do to back up why we need these schools.”
Gibson said school officials tried hard to have projects funded by the bond call be those that would best be funded by long-term financing. She said most of the bond call projects that would have been “on the books” and publicly discussed over the last two years. She said Shepherdstown Elementary School will probably be replaced before the Ranson Elementary School is replaced.
Gibson has said building the two proposed elementary schools would take anywhere from two years “at a minimum” to four years if the bond call is approved. The school system has already purchased land for those school sites.
While the school system might sell the current Shepherdstown Elementary School building once its replacement is built, Gibson said the existing Ranson Elementary School will likely be used as a center for the school system’s preschoolers. Many of the school system’s preschoolers are now sent to private child care centers because of a shortage of public school space to serve those children, she said.
“The funding for those students is going to those private facilities because we do not have the space to house [those preschoolers] in our buildings,” she said.
According to a rough list of renovations and improvements school officials provided, the bond would fund a $1.2 million fire alarm system, about $413,000 to replace or patch several roofs, about $385,000 to replace two heating and cooling systems, about $360,000 to make several school lobbies more secure, about $300,000 to upgrade bathrooms and about $260,000 to remove worn carpets.
The proposed bond would also pay for more than $1.7 million for new athletic fields and running tracks and $1.8 million for an auxiliary gym for Washington High School.
Expanding a science and technology lab for $320,000 is also slated for funding.
Some of the different projects on the bond call list—which must appear on the ballot referendum — were combined under a single funding total. However, left off the list was a $14.5 million Regional Student Support Center first publicly proposed last year. That project became the impetus for a controversial school board attempt to take over the 194-acre Rockwool factory site near Kearneysville by public eminent domain.
Gibson and school board members justified the private property taking, which the school board abandoned after failing to stop a preliminary injunction in federal court, as the county’s best location to house a variety of special programs for gifted, disabled and emotionally challenged students.
However, a public backlash questioning the factory condemnation, and by extension, concerns over school system spending, caused the school board to postpone a voter referendum for Oct. 26, 2019.
On Monday, school board members unanimously approved the $43.5 million bond call proposal, but not without some reservations voiced and questions asked.
Board member Donna Joy, attending her second school board meeting since she was elected last month, questioned the need to spend $150,000 to buy stationary exercise bikes mounted with electronic reader stands as part of a middle school reading-improvement program.
Gibson said the equipment will allow the school system to start a new program promoted by the National School Library Association that encourages students to read more while exercising on stationary cycles. The program, which hasn’t been tried in the county’s schools yet, uses coaches and physical education teachers as program leaders, the superintendent said.
“One of the things that they found in the research that they provided was that reading time among middle school males increased pretty significantly when they gave them time on the bike,” she said.
Joy, who has a doctorate degree in educational research, responded that the program might encourage students to read more but it might not improve their reading comprehension. She said her research into the program found concerns that it “kept students tied to electronics.”
“So it doesn’t sound like this came from the middle school [physical education] program—this was just an idea somebody had that sounded interesting,” she commented. “I’m not saying I’m against it. I’m just trying to understand the meaning and purpose and value.”
Gibson acknowledged that the idea to adopt the program didn’t come from middle school physical education teachers, but those teachers supported trying the program.
Joy also questioned $817,000 in spending that included converting a conference room in the school district’s central administrative office into a historical display telling the story of the county’s former racially segregated Page Jackson High School. The administrative offices are located in the formerly segregated school.
Gibson said much of the identified funding would pay to partially replace a leaky roof and make building safety improvements unrelated to the historical museum display. She also said members of the Page Jackson Alumni Association appreciated having the proposed historical center inside the former school building. “We think it is important — never more so in this day in age — that we turn that into a learning opportunity for folks and we honor that legacy,” she said.
Joy questioned whether the location was appropriate since the public would only be able to experience the historical project during daytime hours on weekdays when the administrative offices are open. “So maybe you need a conference room then, that’s my point,” she said, ‘because it seems it’s mostly used as a conference room.”
Board member Mark Osbourn, although he ultimately voted to place the bond call on the November ballot, voiced concern that the school system would be asking voters to approve both the excess levy and the bond call at a time when many households are financially hurt by furloughs, layoffs and reduced income during the coronavirus shutdowns.
Board member Laurie Ogden expressed the same concern, but she noted that the bond call project list was pared down from an earlier list of projects that would have required $60 million in funding.
Appearing to grow impatient with the questions, including comments aimed at Joy’s questions, school board member Gary Kable made a motion to approve the entire proposed list of projects for the bond call. He pointed out that the list of projects has been developed steadily over about three years, although various project proposals have been added and subtracted over time.
“The requests that are in this proposal are not something that somebody just threw together,” Kable said. “There’s been a lot of thought gone into it. There’s been a lot of planning gone into it.
“And, pardon me, I can’t understand all the questions about what’s going on and why’s it going on and who’s going on and all that stuff,” he added. “And I think we need to go with it instead of trying to beat it up.”
Joy defended her questions, saying it was her responsibility to understand the details before supporting it. “If I wasn’t asking questions I wouldn’t be doing my job,” she said.
In the end, all of the school board members voted in favor placing all of the projects presented along with the $43.5 million worth of bond funding on the general election ballot for an up-or-down approval.