Levy imperative to upgrade schools

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

With the news from the School Building Authority (SBA) that Pocahontas County Schools received a $100,000 reserve grant which will lead to the county receiving a $13 million grant, interim superintendent Terrence Beam is preparing the county for the next step – an excess levy.

“When I went to the SBA funding cycle on Monday, there were two counties who went with zero money in their pockets,” Beam said. “Mason County was one of them and we were the other. Mason County didn’t get funded and we got the $100,000 reserve grant. They are reserving money in next year’s budget to give us our $13 million, if we pass our levy. If we don’t pass our levy, then the money goes back into the pot and somebody else will get it.”

Pocahontas County Schools presented a two phase project to the SBA. The funding will go to the first phase – renovating Marlinton Middle School and converting it into a Pre-K through sixth grade facility, and renovating Green Bank Elementary-Middle School, which will also be converted into a Pre-K through sixth.

The second phase will be renovating Pocahontas County High School and making it a seventh through 12th grade.

Beam said now that it is time to talk about a levy, the decision must be made on whether to do one levy which will generate enough matching funds for both projects or two back-to-back levies which will do the same.

“That’s a decision that we’re going to have to make before we even create the levy call – do we set the levy at a rate to where we can raise enough money so I can go back in the fall and say ‘we already have our upfront money for the high school,’ and immediately a year later, start the high school project,” Beam said. “That’s the way I would love to see this happen. That way we could, in five years, have our part of the project paid for and all of our schools would be renovated.”

The decision will be made by the board of education and Beam, who said it is similar to the decision to finance a car.

“It’s a lot like when you buy a car,” he said. “When you go down here to Mitchell’s and you say, ‘okay, I’m going to by a new Chevrolet.” You sit down with your husband or your wife and say, ‘can we afford this payment at three years or do we need to spread it out over five?’”

Given the condition of the schools, Beam said it would be better to do one levy to fund both phases because it will make the projects go faster. It will also show the SBA that the county is invested in the school system and it will be easier to receive funding for the second phase.

“This is a different situation here,” Beam said. “This is a dire situation that needs addressed. I’m not saying for one minute that as soon as they run [a levy], they’ll run one every five years. I don’t think that needs to happen. Speaking for me – if we could get the support of the community to do one five-year levy and be able to fix all of our schools – then the burden is off us in five years and our buildings are fixed. If we don’t do something, our buildings are going to be shut down by fire marshals and everybody else, because they’re not going to be safe for the kids to be in.”

Safety is one of the main issues leading to the renovations, while the other is the simple fact of how old the buildings are and, for one, its location.

In the 2015-2016 budget, the board allocated $175,000 to the maintenance department for upkeep and equipment, as needed. The funding has dried up and the school year is only at the halfway mark.

Because of the age of the buildings and the inability to see into the future, the board has had many issues which led to the depletion of the maintenance funds.

“I know that we had, in the last month, several projects – things that occurred that are going to require a lot of money,” Beam said. “Like at Hillsboro – we had to put in a $13,000 boiler. The bottom rusted completely out of it. It’s not like you can patch that. You’ve got to replace that. We try to patch as much as we can, but some things have to be replaced.”
All the schools are feeling the strain. PCHS is in need of new restrooms and has a constant leak in the drop ceiling which cannot be found.

The other issue is Marlinton Elementary School – the main focus of the first phase of the project. The school went through major floods in 1985 and 1996, and may still have flood mud in its walls.

“Ever since I’ve been in Pocahontas County,  I’ve heard about the number of students that are sick down there. The number of employees that are sick all the time because of being in that particular building,” Beam said. “I don’t know if that’s legitimate or contrived. That’s the perception out there, that that exists. The other thing, that building – if we move or not – it still needs major renovation and the SBA is not going to give us money to renovate a building in the floodplain.”

MES has been tested and the air quality has been reported as good, but there are still adults and children who get sick more often because they are in the building.

“The air quality has been found to be fine,” Beam said. “I don’t know if this is true or not, but I’ve been told that if you take the outlet covers off some of the walls inside that building, there’s still mud caked back in there from the 96 flood.”

Beam understands that there will be people upset with moving MES out of downtown Marlinton, but he said the move is for a good reason – the safety of the children.

“I just think that, my answer to them would be a question and I would say, ‘what if we wake up one morning and our school is washed down the stream here?’” he said. “I know that sounds harsh, but it’s happened in West Virginia, where schools have been totally destroyed by flooding, and we’ve had three major floods before.”

Beam was reminded of just how high the flood water can get when he went to the water plant to pay his water bill.

“I saw the line [on the wall],” he said. “I’d never seen that before. I’ve seen pictures of the floods in town, but when I stood up there and looked at that, I thought, ‘Lord in Heaven, the water was this high?’ And it could happen again. I don’t want to be a naysayer or use scare tactics or anything, but what do we do if we lose our school? We have nowhere to put them.

“That’s the whole purpose of this – to solve that problem and get those kids out of this flood area altogether,” he added.

Once they gather all the information they need, including blueprints for the finished schools, Beam and the board of education will host community meetings to discuss the levy. Beam said he wants to be as transparent as possible and let each taxpayer know exactly how much they will be giving to the schools when they vote ‘Yes’ on the levy.

“One hundred percent of this levy is going to facilities,” Beam said. “Not a dime of it is going to go anywhere else. The law tells you that however the levy call is created, that’s exactly how you spend it, or else, somebody goes to jail and it’s not going to be me. We’re going to make sure that it’s all spent on facilities.”

The board of education attempted to pass a levy in 2014. It failed with 67 percent of voters opposing the proposed levy, which not only included funding for the schools, but funding for senior programs and county libraries, as well.

Beam said he has heard from many voters in the county who said they would vote for a levy if it was only for facilities.

“The things that I’ve heard from business leaders and in discussions with citizens is that if the last levy would have been all for facilities and they would have understood it was for facilities, they would have passed the levy,” he said. “We’re going to give them that chance.”

If the board decides to do one levy instead of two, Beam said it wouldn’t be much of a stretch from the last levy rates.

“We only have to commit $5.9 million to this project,” he said. “We created an $8.9 million levy last time, so we would already have $3 million in our pockets toward the high school, so if that levy call was slightly higher and enough to where we could take $5 million next year for the high school – I’ve been unofficially assured that we could get the high school fixed at the same time, so we wouldn’t have much of a gap between fixing these two schools and fixing the other school. It would be a year in between.”

A levy vote is just like an election vote, with the majority winning, but Beam won’t be satisfied with a small victory. He hopes the levy passes with an overwhelming number of voters clicking ‘Yes.’

“I would take it, but I don’t want this levy passing 50 plus one vote,” he said. “I want it passing overwhelmingly. I want the SBA to see that Pocahontas County has gotten behind this project because if they do, then that’s going to give us a much better opportunity to get our high school completed.”

If all goes well and the levy is passed, and the schools are renovated, the school system will be in good standing for years to come.

“Our schools would be in great condition for the next generation,” Beam said. “As a grandparent, I see the importance of it now than when I was a parent. I think when you’re a young parent, you think you’ve got all this time ahead of you, and you think everything will be taken care of. When you’re a grandparent and you’ve got your grandkids in school, you want more for them sometimes than you do for you own kids. There’s something special about that.”

With all the preparation and work that must be done before the vote, Beam said he is going to suggest to the board that the levy be on the November ballot instead of May. That way, he will have more time to visit communities, organizations and anyone else who wants to know more about the levy.

“I want to be able to have as much time as we need to get the right message out to everybody so that all the questions are answered,” he said. “I want to be able to have the blueprints in my hands – the design of the buildings so that I can show them what it’s going to look like.

“My role is going to be out there,  talking  to the Woman’s Club, the Lions Club, the Boy Scouts, I don’t care who it is. If they’ve got boy scouts old enough to vote, I’ll talk to them, too,” he added, laughing. “They’re going to hear the same message because it’s the only message that I have. All I can do is try to be as forthright as I can be and really talk to anybody about it, and do what I think is best and let the chips fall where they may.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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