Building Consensus

by Jay Miller

Examining the last two school levy proposals

There is an unsolved mystery that affects all students, parents and teachers in Pocahontas County. Why did the proposed school levies fail in the elections of 2014 and 2016? Even though the measures were for very different purposes, why did voters reject both by about the same margin – two to one?

Those are the questions that we will explore in the coming months by surveying civic groups and individual voters to determine their reasons for voting for or against the school levies. But, first, let’s look at the forces that drove the board of education and school superintendent to request voters to approve property tax increases.

In the next few years, residents of Pocahontas County will have to address the long-term decline in traditional sources of funding for our schools or live with the reality of deteriorating school facilities and severe cutbacks in instructional programs and services. For years, the state has funded Pocahontas County schools based on an administrative assumption (specified by state law) that the student population is not less than 1,400 while the number of students has declined to less 1,100. Since state funding is the largest source of revenue to operate the schools, a change in that assumption to better reflect reality would have drastic implications for class size, the number of teachers, and all other programs including athletics.

In recent years, the federal Secure Rural Schools program (administered by the Department of Agriculture) has been reducing payments each year due to Congressional budget sequestration. Also, federal Title 1 funds used to bolster reading skills in the county’s elementary schools could be reduced or eliminated by Congress; increases are unlikely.

Meanwhile, there is a backlog of deferred maintenance and the need to make structural improvements to school buildings. There is the need to modernize or upgrade heating and cooling, water and sewer, fire suppression, and building security throughout the school system. Also, the problem remains that Marlinton Elementary School sits unprotected in a floodplain.

The state’s School Building Authority is a potential source of funding for infrastructure improvements but, in most cases, successful grant applications to SBA require matching funds that must come from local sources. Any underfunding of maintenance, athletics and instructional programs must also be made up with local funds. The logical conclusion is that if funding for county schools remains insufficient over the long term, county voters will, at some point, need to agree to increase property taxes in the form of an excess levy – or live with the knowledge that students will be shortchanged. So far, a compelling case has not been made to convince a majority of voters to increase taxes for school improvements.

But why?

Before we start surveying civic groups and individual voters in the county to better understand the reasons the levies failed we need to provide some background information for studying voters’ opinions about the levies. This column examines election results for the two recent school levy proposals. An upcoming column will study the fact that most other counties in West Virginia currently have excess school levies, including many counties that are poorer than Pocahontas County.

The school levy proposed on the November 2014 ballot would have raised more than $9 million over five years “for the purposes of maintaining and improving instructional programs and operations of school services.” Most of the funds (62 percent) would have paid for “maintenance, security and safety” expenses not included in the school system’s budget. The rest of levy funding was to cover a variety of instructional and other programs including vocational education, athletic and band programs, alternative education, pre-school services, classroom supplies, technology and materials, library services, 4-H and Energy Express, in-school health services, fire services, and (for good measure) senior citizen services.

The table at top shows how voters responded to the 2014 appeal for additional school funding. Because 2014 was a mid-term election year, voter turnout was lower than typically seen in a presidential election. At 49 percent, voter turnout was respectable for an off-year election; 2,521 voters recorded their opinion about the levy. County-wide, the vote was 2:1 against the levy – and the results were consistent (67 percent disapproval) across the Northern, Central and Southern districts. Because of the relatively small voting population in the county, however, it is significant that a shift of only 427 votes against the levy to votes in favor would have changed the result from overwhelming disapproval to a bare majority.

Source: All data in this column was provided by the Pocahontas County Clerk’s Office, official election results.

By contrast, the 2016 levy proposal was focused entirely on improving or rehabilitating school facilities. The measure would have raised $9.9 million over five years in property taxes to match $11.6 million in a grant from the state School Building Authority. Of the total funds to be raised by the levy, $5.9 million was designated for matching funds to address major mechanical and structural issues at Green Bank Elementary/Middle School and to add classrooms and upgrade building systems at the current Marlinton Middle School. Air conditioning would have been added to both facilities. These changes were needed so that the seventh and eighth grades from both middle schools could be moved to the high school, and so that Marlinton Elementary School could be closed with pre-K through fifth grade being relocated to the renovated facility on Beard Heights; sixth grade would remain there. The remaining $4 million in levy funds were to be used to renovate the high school, including a seventh and eighth grade “school within a school” that would be separated from the high school (grades nine -12) – with the hope that $4 million would offer a sufficient match to encourage the SBA to provide remaining funding needed to complete renovations at the high school.

The table also shows voter response to the 2016 proposed school levy. Because of the presidential election, turnout was high at 66 percent with 3,656 registered voters weighing in on the levy. Although 37 percent of voters approved the levy (a higher rate than 2014 results), 63 percent voted against. Even with the much higher vote count in 2016, a shift on only 480 votes from “against” to “for” would have secured a win. At 69 percent against, the Northern District was the most unfavorable to the proposed levy; 61 percent of Southern District voters disapproved; and, 59 percent of Central District voters were against.

Two significant facts stand out from these elections. First, although both recent proposals were very different in their general purposes each garnered about a third of the votes cast – which may indicate a base level of support for increased financing to improve county schools. And, second, convincing fewer than 500 voters who may otherwise have been inclined to vote against a levy to vote in favor would have changed the outcome in each case.

As we move forward, we must consider what factors need to change to make any levy proposal acceptable to voters. There are many opinions about why the proposed school levies in 2014 and 2016 failed to win a majority of voter support including a general dislike of taxes, voters who don’t have children in school, dislike of further school consolidation, and increased bus travel times, among others. But, no one knows exactly why two out of three voters in each election decided against the levy and, conversely, which aspects of both proposals may have broad support but were overwhelmed by negative considerations.

That is the mystery that must be solved for any future levy proposal to stand a reasonable chance of success.
Contact Jay Miller by email at jvmiller2008@gmail.com or call 304-653-4195.

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