A look at the politics and particulars of excess levies for schools: Mon's election is Saturday

·7 min read

Sep. 19—MORGANTOWN — When it comes to excess levies and the spending money they bring for school districts, it's all relative, as Nancy Walker likes to explain.

Say you're a kid, and your folks give you an allowance every week.

Because you're a kid, and your mom and dad do provide as best they can, you likely have the fundamentals covered.

You know: Food, clothes, a roof over your head. Those kinds of fundamentals.

Of course, pocket money, by way of that allowance, is pretty neat, also.

But what if you want to buy something that week that exceeds the reach of that allowance ?

Well, you could not buy it that week, and try to save up and budget for next week or next month, if you were so fiscally inclined and disciplined.

And remember: The fundamental reason it's coming down to this, is because, well, your parents simply don't have any more in the kid-coffers for you.

Sure, you could run the vacuum or take out the garbage for extra money, if such opportunities are made available.

You could mow the lawn.

Either way, though, if you really want—or really need—whatever that item is to help you maintain your kid standard of living, you're on your own.

You're going to earn the extra by yourself.

Which, in effect, is what Monongalia County Schools has been asking taxpayers to do for the past 48 years.

"For instance, we shouldn't have as many counselors as we have, " Walker, the president of Mon's Board of Education told The Dominion Post editorial board last week.

"The psychologists are a great example. And look at our foreign language offerings."

Mon is hailed as one of the top school districts in the Mountain State, if not the top district, said Walker, a 25-year incumbent on the BOE.

The fundamental reason for that, she said, comes down to consistent passage here at the polls of the excess levy for schools—even if she doesn't like the word "excess " in the title.

Excess levies are those taxes on property that go beyond the state school funding formula, which is about $4, 500 per student in West Virginia.

The latest such levy for Mon's school district is again on the ballot.

While the special election is Saturday, early voting runs through Wednesday at the county Election Center at Mountaineer Mall.

The center is closed today, but you may cast your ballot there from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. for the next three days.

After that, polls will open across the county from 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Saturday.

"The excess levy makes us who we are, " she said.

The playground—and the sewer line Mon Schools Superintendent Eddie Campbell Jr. can raise his hand to that.

After a resume that included teaching and administrative jobs in Virginia, Alaska and Shanghai, China, he returned to his native West Virginia to head Tucker County's district, before the opportunity here.

"I bring a unique perspective to the levy, because I came from a county that didn't have one, and couldn't get one passed, " he said.

"Tucker County ran several when I was there, and one we lost by a single vote, believe it or not, " Campbell continued.

"In a county like that, you're constantly chasing your tail."

And so would this county, he said.

"If counties weren't allowed for more money from their communities, you'd all struggle, " the superintendent said.

Why ? See the above, about kids and allowances from mom and dad. There's only so much money.

Part of it goes back to what is now known simply as the Recht decision.

That's shorthand for the action taken by Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht in 1982, when he declared the system of funding schools unconstitutional.

The Recht decision came from a class-action lawsuit filed by a mom in Lincoln County.

She was appalled her children were attending a crumbling elementary school with four cramped rooms, broken chairs, broken windows and one (unwanted) extra: An open sewer line running through the playground.

The Recht decision did call for sweeping infrastructure improvements, and it did initiate more defined audits of student progress.

It even bumped teacher salaries a bit, but there was only such money to go around.

Delta days (and school days, too)

Mylan Pharmaceuticals, and the paychecks it generated, is now in the past tense.

The Delta variant continues to sprint through all 55 counties, putting West Virginians in the hospital and on ventilators at an Olympic pace.

That means students and teachers presenting with positive diagnoses. That means students and teachers out on quarantine and some schools shifting to remote-learning.

And protests, too, over mask mandates (or not) and rolling up your sleeve (or not) for the vaccine.

In Walker's world, it still means the business of school—even during uncertain days.

"Some people aren't happy with us, " she said.

"But I do think that people want their children in school. And we do have to work with the community."

Define 'excess' ...

The Recht decision wasn't the end-all for West Virginia's public system.

That's because the state's counties are as different as they are the same.

Like that sewer line bisecting that playground in Lincoln, however, so too was the demarcation of the "have " counties-versus-the-ones-not-as-prosperous after the judge's ruling.

And prosperity, as Walker is wont to say, is also relative.

Even in Monongalia County.

"There's a misconception across the state that we're all so affluent up here, " the BOE president said.

"But we're not."

While Monongalia does generally fare better than several counties across the state, there's still homelessness and food insecurity here.

There are still children in living situations less than ideal, Walker said.

"Some kids are really traumatized, " she said. "School is the nicest place they've ever gone."

In many Mountain State counties, there's nothing excess about excess levies. The outlay funds teacher salaries and heating and cooling upgrades to (more often than not) antiquated buildings.

Mon funnels its levy monies into its classrooms, the superintendent said.

"When you look at the details of what it supports, it's about programs and people. It's not about 'stuff, ' " he continued.

"Even in a COVID year like we just went through, we were the top-scoring county in the state, in math, English and science, the three areas that are tested."

Levies are (as levies do)

The excess levy brings $32 million to Mon County's school district.

It funds the district's renowned language offerings, including Mandarin. It enables Mon Schools to maintain a cadre of school counselors, psychologists and nurses—which are critical, both the BOE president and superintendent said, in the COVID climate.

Excess levy dollars go to supplemental programs for students, before and after school, along with learning camps during the summer.

The excess levy here enables principals and other employees to work 261-day contracts, so buildings aren't shuttered and all but abandoned during the months of summer vacation.

It also funds long-term health insurance—dental and vision packages included—for employees, Walker said.

Excess levies may have failed just twice since they were first fronted here, and should that happen Saturday, it goes back to the allowance analogy above.

"We would have to find $32 million worth of either people or programs in some capacity in order to make up that deficit, " Campbell said.

"The money's not going to come to us from any other source."

The source of Mon's success, in terms of levy dollars, Walker said, is because those resources mean the district can outfit schools with the best programs and course offerings—while attracting the best educators for in front of the classroom.

"You don't hear about these kids who go to all these Ivy League schools, how well-prepared they are, " Walker said.

"We've just gotta get caught back up, with the pandemic."

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