The proposed renewal of a five-year excess levy for Upshur County schools incited public concern this week, especially since discussions for the levy came just days after the approval of an expensive video scoreboard for the high school football field.
Upshur County Board of Education members Patrick Long and Teresa Bellamy said they wanted to hear the community's concerns about the levy - which will run out in July 2014 - during Tuesday's BOE meeting. The BOE hopes to have a special election in either January or February of next year on renewing the levy, though a date has not yet been approved.
Howard Johns, an Upshur County resident and former board member, questioned the school board's motives for the excess levy. He asked why a levy was needed if the school board had the funds to purchase the video scoreboard. Johns said the focus should be on education, not sports.
"I could pay 10 times the tax money; that's not the point," Johns said. "The point is what you're getting for your tax. When I was on the school board, we were fighting, trying to find money to fix the electric in the buildings or fix the air conditioning, and you're going to spend money on a scoreboard that has nothing whatsoever to do with education."
Superintendent Roy Wager reminded those in attendance that the Upshur County Football Boosters and other sports booster organizations were working to repay the scoreboard's cost through fundraisers and advertising panels on the scoreboard. Those organizations already have managed to raise $27,000 of about $125,000 needed for two scoreboards. The funds raised are enough to pay for the soccer scoreboard that was purchased.
"It's not as if it's a gift," Wager said. "There is a purpose, and if you've seen the old scoreboard at the high school, it's about ready to fall down and cannot be repaired anymore."
Johns said he was not convinced. He questioned what a scoreboard had to do with education.
"Much research supports that students who are involved in athletics, music and theater, and all those extra-curricular activities, are much more successful in education," board member Tammy Samples said. "It's not just this free hand-out. Those students that are involved are much more likely to be successful. The research says that."
Johns said the national ranking of the school system was not satisfactory and questioned why Upshur County couldn't rise to the top.
"It takes everybody," Samples said. "It takes parents. It takes teachers. It takes everybody. We've lost that idea of taking a village to raise a child. Until we get everyone involved and everyone doing their part, we can't move forward.
"We can yell at teachers; we can yell at parents, do whatever. Until all those parties come together, I don't see a move forward in education, the actual learning. It takes everybody and we don't have that. We're working to get that by supporting all programs, I think. That's my opinion."
Another member of the audience noted that the drop-out rate for Upshur County has been significantly reduced and that more students are staying in school and graduating. Board members said good things are happening in Upshur County schools, but that those stories aren't what the public seems to notice or hear about as much in the news.
"I feel like we're directing the monies in the areas that we need it to try to make the best possible classroom situation for the kids in the county," Bellamy said. "We have a lot of success stories coming out of this."
Bellamy said that last year's graduates received a large number of scholarships.
"I think we're headed in the right direction," Bellamy said. "Do we need to make more strides? Yes, I agree. The help at home has to come into play. The community support has to come into play. There's more pieces to the puzzle than just what's inside our school system."
"The levy's just one more piece," board member Greenbrier Almond said. "I think it's our chance to be excellent and get a little bit ahead of where we are right now."
Other comments from the public included an allegation that building a new middle school was a reason for renewing the levy.
Board member Patrick Long said the levy has nothing to do with building a new middle school and that it is simply a renewal of the five-year levy that is already in place.
"It will not raise anyone's taxes," Wager said. "It is just a continuation for the next five years."
Board members said they want to be transparent about the levy and will provide the media with a list of what the levy funds have purchased for the school in the past.
The excess levy discussions will continue at the next board meeting, set for 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Washington District Elementary School.
Members of the public are encouraged by the school board to attend the meeting.