Purposes and Cost of School Levies
When thinking about what Pocahontas County voters may consider reasonable purposes and cost for a school levy it is helpful to look at other similarly situated counties which have passed levy measures. But how do you select which counties to compare if you do not want to consider all 42 (of 55) counties which have school levies? What characteristics would make certain counties comparable?
Selecting counties based on household income may provide insight into the relative affordability of a school levy. Sorting counties based on the number of residents in different age brackets could approximate the makeup of Pocahontas County. But, to get a general idea of the typical purposes and costs of school levies that may help inform the discussion in Pocahontas County, I have chosen to focus on those rural counties which the West Virginia Board of Education considers to have sparse student populations (or low student density) for their geographic area. The State considers counties with between five to 10 students per square mile as having “low” student density; those with fewer than five students per square mile are classed as “sparse.” Pocahontas Coun-ty has the lowest student density at 1.14 students per square mile.
Among the 25 counties with the lowest student density approximately half (13), including Pocahontas County, do not have a school levy; the other 12 have school levies. Data is not available from one such county (Nicholas). With the exception of Pleasants County, all West Virginia counties having fewer than 1,400 students (and thus qualify for a guaranteed minimum level of state funding) are included in the 25 counties with lowest student density. For this analysis, I have included Pleasants County in place of Nicholas County.
The table below shows both general and specific purposes which voters in 12 rural counties approved for funding by excess school levies.
All counties chosen for comparison use “excess levy” funds to augment base budgets in the areas deemed to be most significantly underfunded. The most common purposes used to justify a school levy are: maintenance of school facilities; providing free textbooks; instructional equipment; improved classroom techno- logy; arts and music; extracurricular programs and activities; direct services to students; library services (including those provided by county libraries); and, last, but not least, funds to supplement salaries and benefits for professional and service employees – especially in competitive labor markets.
None of the rural counties studied here asked voters to raise matching funds for School Building Authority grants – which was the sole purpose of the proposed school levy which failed in Pocahontas County in the November 8, 2016, general election. The previous school levy proposal in 2014 cited several of the typical purposes listed above but also included some unusual provisions such as providing free passes to county residents for in-county school sports, and senior citizen services which may have offended some voters.
Given a high degree of overlap and agreement regarding the purposes of school levies in the counties studied here, the question remains: How much extra are such counties willing to tax themselves to support schools? The following table shows annual costs per student (as a share of levy funding) for very rural counties.
The sparsely populated counties nearest Pocahontas County (i.e., Randolph, Greenbrier and Monroe) raise about $1,000 annually per student through their school levies. Other counties with fewer than 1,400 students raise more than $2,000 annually per student. As a comparison, the 2016 proposed school levy in Pocahontas County would have raised about $1,900 per student each year; the 2014 levy proposal would have raised about $1,600 annually per student.
For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, the Board of Education received $4,022,144 as its share of property taxes. Based on the above data, if the Board were to propose another school levy, it may be prudent to keep the request in the lower range of levies approved in other very rural counties, i.e., around $1,000 per student per year – and no more than $1,500 annually per student. At $1,000 per student, more than $1,000,000 would be raised annually which would increase local funding by a quarter – with the additional cost to taxpayers being about half of what was requested in 2016.
During public meetings conducted by the Board of Education and Superintendent last October to promote the proposed school levy, several comments expressed skepticism that the school levy would actually be spent for the stated purposes. Assurances were provided that any levy funds would be controlled by the School Building Authority as part of its administrative authority over the various renovation projects – but the proposal failed. Absent the controlling role of the SBA, if a levy is passed in the future for purposes similar to what other counties have adopted, it is reasonable to ask: How would skeptics be credibly assured that excess levy funds would be spent for the intended purposes? In addition, how could voters be assured that levy funds would be used to supplement the base budget in critically underfunded areas rather than supplanting portions of the current budget? No doubt, other counties have addressed these issues on the way to convincing their voters to approve school levy measures – and their approaches bear examination.
Jay Miller may be contacted at email@example.com or by calling 304-653-4195.