CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Board of Education will not place a school bond referendum for approval by county voters on the May 12 primary election ballot.
Facing a Feb. 18 deadline to commit to a placing bond referendum question on the primary ballot, school board members want more time to decide what school building projects such public financing might pay for, reported Hans Fogle, the school system’s public information officer.
“Any bond call would require the same due diligence previous referendums have required, including assessing the needs of individual school communities, holding community meetings and gathering frequent feedback,” Fogle stated in an email last week. “At this point, the [Board of Education] does not feel there is adequate time to fulfill their obligations by meeting with community stakeholders and gathering their input on what priorities they might have at this point.”
“This board continues to prioritize the community’s involvement in this process,” he continued.
Nikki Painter, Jefferson County’s chief deputy clerk for elections, said school officials have not contacted the county’s elections office about adding a school bond call on the primary ballot. The elections office will send final primary ballots to a printer on Feb. 18, she said.
A referendum seeking voters’ approval to issue new school bond debt has to identify what specific school projects the proposed debt would fund, officials have said.
Last week a Shepherdstown resident, speaking during a public comment period during a school board meeting, urged school officials not to postpone a bond referendum beyond the May primary. Jim Schmitt said a new round of long-term bond financing was needed to pay for overdue repairs and replacements of old and outdated school facilities.
“I’m trying to keep this train rolling,” Schmitt said of a range of proposed school building improvements, including possibly new schools in Shepherdstown and Ranson. “In order to do that I know the county needs a lot of money and to float a bond.”
The school board had planned to hold a special voter referendum last Oct. 26, 2019.
School officials paid off $30 million in bond debt that voters had approved several years ago. They have said another $50 million to $60 million in new bonds could be issued without raising property taxes beyond what county residents currently pay.
School board President Kathy Skinner has estimated that a homeowner with a $300,000 property would continue to pay about $60 a year to cover about $56 million in bond debt they planned to issue.
Ballot referendums to approve school building bonds have been routinely approved by Jefferson County voters every four to five years. To help ensure that such referendums pass, school officials have typically scheduled special referendums outside of primary and general elections, a process that generally draws low voter turnouts dominated by motivated school-funding supporters.
Election officials have estimated that conducting a special referendum costs about $80,000 to $90,000, an expense absorbed by the school system. Placing a referendum question on a primary or election ballot avoids the extra expense.
However, a backlash of controversy and scrutiny over school funding and spending arose last April when the school board moved to condemn through eminent domain a 196-acre site of a Rockwool insulation factory under construction. Amid intense public opposition to the factory with a coal-fired furnace that was being built near North Jefferson Elementary School, school board members moved to take over the factory site for the public use of building a Regional Student Support Center.
School officials planned to pay Rockwool a market value of $1.4 million for the factory site for a regional student center costing about $14.5 million, according to court documents. Rockwool had already spent about $50 million building the factory when the school system filed its condemnation lawsuit, which was withdrawn after the Danish manufacturer fought the property condemnation with a counter lawsuit in federal court.
Afterward, the Jefferson County Commission, protesting the condemnation and the extra taxpayer cost of holding a special referendum in October, voted 4-1 to block the school system from using the county election office to conduct the Oct. 26 special referendum. School officials canceled the referendum but held open the possibility of placing one on the upcoming primary ballot.
Last week Fogle stated school officials are still prioritizing dozens of proposed school renovation projects and a few new school construction projects that would be funded by any new bond financing. That process will include more public input, he added.