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School levy and SBA ~ taking our schools into the future

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The School Levy Committee is preparing to hold  community meetings, and Superintendent of Schools Terrence Beam is anxious as the election draws near.

“We’ve got about two months left, and the future of our county – in my opinion – depends on this,” Beam said. “I truly believe that our future depends on this.”

It is obvious the proposed levy will make big changes for the school buildings, but Beam said it is possible the upgraded schools can lead to a brighter future for the county as a whole.

Beam recalled a discussion he had with  another superintendent who is concerned about how the schools in his county are perceived by corporations which may want to bring business into the area.

“[He] was telling me, industry won’t move in there because one of the first things they look at is the school system,” Beam said. “They see what kind of schools you’ve got and how are you doing. Those people want good schools for their kids.

“It’s the same with this levy,” Beam continued. “If we fix our buildings up and make them more attractive and safer for our students, who knows what that could bring for us down the road.”

If the levy fails, Beam sees a much different future for Pocahontas County.

“If we don’t pass it, and we don’t get our buildings upgraded, and the buildings become the laughing stock of the state, then I don’t think we’re going to have that worry [about industry] because we’re not going to be dealing with that kind of situation. We’re not going to have industry moving into Pocahontas County. We’re going to lose more and more people because people want good schools for their kids.

“I think the majority of people in Pocahontas County want the same thing, too,” he continued. “They just want a plan that makes sense to them and more than anything else, they want to trust the decisions being made. That’s what we are trying to get out to everybody.”

Beam has met with some contention with regard to the levy, due in part to the plan to move Marlinton Elementary School to Marlinton Middle School, getting it out of the floodplain. While the students will be safer, there are still a lot of people who don’t want to see the school leave the town.

Recent events in West Virginia where several schools were condemned and closed due to flooding have reinforced Beam’s desire to move the MES to higher ground.

“I was talking to a board [of education] member in Nicholas County, and they told me they wanted to put the FEMA portable buildings back in Richwood and FEMA wouldn’t even let them put the portable buildings back in Richwood, so obviously they’re not going to let them build permanent buildings there. That’s the same situation that we have here in Marlinton. If, heaven forbid, we have another major event that would destroy the school, they still are not going to let us put it back down here in Marlinton.”

With the situation in Nicholas County in mind, Beam said the levy will allow the board of education to be proactive and move the students to a safer location before disaster strikes and there are no other options.

Along with moving MES and creating a Pre-K through sixth grade school at Green Bank, Marlinton and Hillsboro, the levy will provide a down payment for a second grant from the West Virginia School Building Authority (SBA).

The levy will raise funds to match the grants from the SBA which are promised to Pocahontas County. If the levy passes, Beam will approach the SBA with plans for the second grant, a new Pocahontas County High School.

“We’re going to try to do something major with the high school,” Beam said. “I’m going to be doing a presentation in November, and it’s not going to be to repair Pocahontas County High School. It’s going to be to replace it. I want to build a new school because the architects tell us that that building is dying. It’s too old. It’s got too many major problems that would cost so much money.”

The architects designing the school upgrades said it would cost more money to repair the high school, which is only a temporary fix, than it would be to build a brand new school.

“If you put fifteen million dollars in that building, is it going to help? Of course it is, but you’re still going to have, by that time, a fifty year old foundation and sewer system,” Beam said.

The other reason to build a new school is because the current high school is larger than what is needed, according to student population. The school was built for roughly 700 to 750 students.

If the school is made into a seventh through 12th grade facility, there would be between 460 and 550 students.

“I did an estimate just last week on how many kids we would have if three years from now, we made this move,” Beam said. “We’d have four hundred, sixty-five. So if we build a high school that would hold five hundred, fifty kids, to allow for growth, it’s going to be cheaper to build, in comparison to repairing a building that’s really designed for seven, eight hundred kids. You’re repairing space that technically you don’t need.”

Beam said he understands it is difficult to think about building a new school when the current one has been such a big part of the community, but it is a tough decision that is in the best interest of the students.

It is also a decision that has to take the SBAs suggestions into consideration. If the SBA doesn’t like the plan set in front of it, it won’t approve the grant.

“The SBA has a formula for how they do these things,” Beam said. “The counties don’t make that decision. The SBA made those decisions. They give you square footage based on the number of students you have, not what you think your needs are. What SBA says is, ‘fine, you don’t want our money that we’re giving you and you want to do it your way, then you pay for it.’ We don’t have the money to pay for those kinds of things.”

Beam said now is the best time to go to the SBA for grants and with grants, comes a levy. That is why it is so important to pass the levy. The five year tax increase commitment by Pocahontas County will provide a match for grants from the SBA to fix current buildings and to build a new one.

“We will never get another opportunity to fix these buildings for five millions dollars, our cost,” Beam said. “It’s never going to happen because every year, the cost of these buildings is going to increase.”

This year is ideal for the high school proposal because, Beam said, the SBA has more money than usual to grant.

“The SBA is going to have eighty million dollars to give instead of fifty-five and some of the reason is because some of these counties that were promised money did not pass their bonds or levies, and so they had to give their money back,” he said. “So we have an even better opportunity of getting something done for our high school this year, above every other year, because there’s a little bit more money for the SBA to disperse.”

The grants all depend on passage of the levy in November. The funds have been promised and set aside for Pocahontas County, so now, Beam has to play the waiting game.

It’s up to the voters.

With a slight increase in property taxes, county taxpayers would invest $5.9 million into the improved school project, while the SBA, upon the passage of the levy, would contribute roughly $20 million.

“We already have the golden goose,” he said. “They already laid that egg for us to pay for the majority of this. Five years from now, Pocahontas County’s obligation is fulfilled and hopefully our schools are fixed. This is our shot.”

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com

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