School bond issue may be a hard sell for Marion County voters in May

Jan. 25—FAIRMONT — A conversation between Marion County School Superintendent Donna Heston and Marion County Commissioners Wednesday revealed how much public campaigning the school district may have to do to get its proposed school bond passed in May.

Heston fielded several tough questions from commissioners regarding the bond at Wednesday's County Commission meeting, especially from Commisioner Bobby DeVaul. The central issue for commissioners appeared to be the process under which the bond was drafted before its placement on the ballot.

"I think they had problems within their own bond committee," DeVaul said. They put a proposal together and then had somebody who was on the bond committee stood up as a citizen and went against it. I think they needed to do a better job of presenting and proposing and being on the same board of 'hey, this is what we want moving forward.'"

DeVaul's primary objection was the lack of any money for Mannington Middle School and Monongah Middle School, citing a general perception felt by residents in the northern part of the county that their area was typically left behind when it came to community improvements. (DeVaul's mother is principal of Mannington Middle.)

However, Heston replied that the bond proposal committee was composed of representatives appointed by principals from each of the feeder areas, including the northern part of the county. She also pointed out that the priority for facility improvements was set by the school system's Comprehensive Educational Facility Plan, which was approved by the Marion County Board of Education, the West Virginia Board of Education and the School Building Authority of West Virginia. The CEFP was also created and instituted under the previous superintendent and locks the school system in a facilities improvement plan until 2030.

One more thing blocking repairs to Mannington Middle is the State Board of Education. At the Dec. 27, 2023 Marion County Board of Education meeting, Heston said that the State Board refused to place Marion County's request for Mannington Middle's repairs on its agenda, kneecapping the school district's efforts to obtain funding from the School Building Agency.

"That item did appear on the WVBU agenda as a 'do not recommend' agenda item," Heston said. "Mannington Middle and Monongah Middle are identified in the 10 year CEFP by Thrasher Engineering to be addressed in 2024 by Marion County Schools."

Making the bond politically palatable to voters was also on the minds of the School Board as they finalized their proposal for the ballot. The original bond was roughly $30 million, the board pared it down to $19.6. DeVaul referenced the cuts, asking Heston if they were made to the detriment of Mannington and Monongah Middle. Heston explained that the Board looked at the original list and chose one high school and one middle school project for each of the three feeders. Unsatisfied, DeVaul replied that to the public, it looked like Mannington and Monongah got cut.

"We certainly know that there are a lot of challenges, particularly in today's climate," Heston said. "It's our hope that our voters will look at that and invest in improvements to our school system."

Furthermore, Heston cited the fact that this bond is a five year bond and not a 10 year bond as an opportunity to prove to the public that the school system can successfully finish projects as well as give the chance to tackle the district's long to do list in phases, giving "voters the chance to decide on the completion of future facilities improvements in long term phases," she said.

With the bond on the ballot, Heston said the school district will hold town halls and do more to educate voters on the bond. However, some level of negative perception now follows the bond due to dissatisfaction over the drafting process and desire for more public engagement. This follows despite the open school board meetings in December and early January which dealt with the bond issue.

"I think it needs to be more open and have more town meetings about what they're proposing to do so they get more input from the different communities," County Commissioner Linda Longstreth said. "I'd like to see that change because you put it on the ballot and then you go out and tell people what it's going to be on it, is a little late. And so I'd like to see it be a more open process and talk to the communities and see what they really need."

Elsewhere, the commission continued setting the table for the upcoming election by passing several important procedural policies. Mary Gay Priolette and Mary Allen were approved as Democrat and Republican Ballot Commissioners. Members of the Election Resolution Board were also approved.

Kim Wade, Jeff Biafore, Richard Danley, Mary Gay Priolette, and Mary Ellen will sit on the board, with Jessica Graffius and Lynette Shahan as contingency voters as necessary. The board has Democrat, Republican and Independent representation. The county clerk also submitted the written policy for both the noncommercial use of the Voter's Registration List for 2024 and the Voting Systems Security Policy for 2024. Commissioners also approved the submission of the Emergency Absentee Voting Policy for 2024.

Finally, the Commission also honored North Marion football player Landon Frey, who was recognized by Sports Illustrated for making the "Winning National Play of the Year" in the state championship game.

"It was a great honor, especially for flipping through that magazine just growing up," Frey said. "I had a subscription to it, it always comes in the mail and as big as a platform and organization they are, it was really special."

Frey wants to continue his football career in college, as well as majoring in business and marketing. He hopes he can either coach football one day or own his own business catering to either football or athletes.

The next commission meeting is Feb. 7.

Reach Esteban at efernandez@timeswv.com