Strong schools make a stronger economy


Reprinted courtesy of: Charleston Daily Mail

In 2012, the Kanawha County Board of Education presented voters with an enticing proposition: "Approve an excess levy to provide additional funding for our schools and we will cap the rate so that your property taxes go up a finite amount just once over the next five years."


With urging from member Pete Thaw, the board decided to cap the amount of funds it would seek from property owners at a flat $44 million per year, which for the first year was 65 percent of what the school system could have sought.


On this opinion page, the Daily Mail commended the board for its fiscal responsibility and gave the levy a strong endorsement. Meanwhile, some who follow the school system quietly wondered if a flat $44 million levy was a good idea.


Capping the levy at a fixed dollar amount instead of 65 percent meant that no new funds would come in as property tax revenues to the county inevitably rose. Even with low inflation, fixed costs such as utilities and health care payments would still rise and eat away at available funds over the life of the levy.


Why the need so soon?

It wasn't long before most of the school board members realized that proposition was too good to be true.


Just months after the levy passed with a 66 percent majority vote in May 2012, Superintendent Ron Duerring reported to board members that the school system would face a $4.5 million deficit the first day the new levy took effect in 2014.


Duerring explained the increased costs and lower revenues to the Daily Mail editorial board this week. 


The budget will face several hits that were unforeseen at the time, he said, including a 5 percent cut in federal funding, a $2 million loss based on a change in reimbursement by the Department of Health & Human Services, half a million dollars in increased insurance payment costs, and more. 


The county is working to reduce costs. In the past several years it increased the pupil to teacher ratio, reduced by 20 the number of administrators, closed and consolidated 28 schools and begin cooperative purchasing with neighboring counties to save $21 million. 


Still, supporters say the additional money is needed for quality schools.


The additional $24.4 million the first year will support new school technology, renovations and updates to career centers, supplements for extracurricular activities, and much more. 


The library system's budget squeeze

Not to be forgotten in this vote is the Kanawha County Public Library System. Through no fault of its own, the library system is facing a 40 percent loss of funding. That funding decline happened when the state Supreme Court overturned the law that provided for a portion of Kanawha County's school levy funds to be allocated to the library system.


The proposed new levy, which goes before voters in a special election Nov. 9, a Saturday, includes $3.4 million for the library system to restore its previous funding level.


Without voters passing a new funding mechanism, the library system will have to park its bookmobile, shutter several of its nine branches and drastically reduce services.


Some will argue that with today's technology, libraries are not as useful as they used to be, but supporters will tell you otherwise.

It's not just the 625,000 books and media items, the 2,400 children's and family programs and the 823,000 visits by patrons that Kanawha County's libraries provide that are important. 

Today's libraries bridge a huge digital divide for the 35 percent of West Virginians who do not have computers and 60 percent who have no internet access at home. Many of those people rely on the library to improve their education and find a job.


The irony in paying more taxes now

Still, a request for more tax money is not something to be taken lightly. Between federal, state, county, and in some cases, city taxes, most families already struggle with a heavy tax burden.

Yet the irony is that more money into our libraries and schools today can help keep the tax burden lower in future years. More than ever, economic growth depends on a well-educated and well-prepared workforce. 


Without a strong library and school system, economic opportunities in the area suffer. With reduced economic growth, the responsibility for paying for the school system stays among a smaller tax base.


Failure of the school bond would do considerable harm to the county's library system and stifle the county's resources to properly educate its children. 


The county school and library systems need to continue to push for savings and efficiencies. The public needs to continue to be watchful. 


But this levy needs to pass to assure growing educational opportunities for Kanawha County's students and adults in an increasingly complex world.