I was a keen observer of the past two school excess levy failures in Randolph County. My interest was two-fold: I believed (and still do) involvement in local government is key to being a good citizen and I was a pre-service teacher studying at Davis & Elkins College. Learning about funding of education and how local sentiments vary between counties are matters of consequence that I felt I should know about.
I also had a further vested interest. In my short years at Davis & Elkins College I’d fallen in love with Randolph County and I knew in the back of my mind that I didn’t want to live anywhere else. I was welcomed warmly here by so many and found some much joy living here. Between Augusta, the access to outdoor spaces, and the low cost of living I was sold.
My youthful rebellion was not to move across the country after graduation. It was to stay in one place and invest my time, my money, and my spirit in a community that I believed in.
I was grateful that a teaching job opened at Elkins High School about the same time I graduated this past May and I could begin to live out my youthful rebellion. (In fact as I type my parents are working in the other room on the house we’re fixing up in Elkins. I’ve been able to put down roots faster than even I expected.)
This means that I am not an observer anymore. Both in the sense that I am now full time resident in Randolph County and that the school levy directly effects the resources available to myself, my colleagues, and my employer.
This is my attempt to talk across the lines and persuade voters who are undecided or planning to vote against the school excess levy.
I use the phrase “talking across the lines” in a very deliberate fashion (many thanks to the Klines for the phrase). I see the solutions to our problems and the future unity in our communities dependent on this ability to listen and talk with each other instead of talking at each other. I hope to correct the “us against them” mentality that has dominated this and other issues across the county. That mischaracterization issues as done more harm to our community than is currently visible.
The first step in correcting that is admitting a simple truth; we are not against each other. Whether you vote for or against the levy you still want good schools in your community and you still want students to succeed and eventually contribute to the whole of the community in the future. The same goes on the national stage. Whether you vote for Clinton, Trump, Johnson, or Stein you still want America to succeed. Our political persuasions vary and our vision of the solutions to our nations problems very as well, but at the end of the day we all want a better future for our nation.
This is the end of demonizing each other. We have to live together in unity and that must start now. We have to listen and consider to all sides. Even if every part of our being is opposed to that point of view. We have to consider the multiple realities we bring together when we consider issues of importance. We have to consider how our point of view can be worlds away from those of our neighbors.
In the spirit of listening please consider four reasons why a yes vote on the school excess levy is a responsible decision for the future of our county.
“It’s a Referendum on the Future, Not the Past”
In the past few years I’ve grown to realize that there is a tangible mistrust between the public and the school system. I’ve also grown to realize that there is a sense of animosity between those schools that seemingly have a lot and those schools that seemingly do not have as much.
While I am not an expert on restoring trust in government entities, I do believe that it is possible for that trust to be restored. I think that is a two-step process. First, you elect new individuals in positions of power. I believe the two new members on the school board are a step in this direction. Second, the public has to give them a chance. That is my request: give the new board and newish superintendent a chance to demonstrate their abilities. They cannot fix issues they didn’t create without public support of the county as a whole.
Which leads me to address the animosity between schools. While I don’t know all the histories and I don’t know the wrong and hurt that was inflected in the past, but I do know that as it stands all the schools suffer the same. I feel that I can speak to this after spending a significant amount of time at Tygarts Valley during my time as a pre-service teacher and at Elkins High School as a teacher.
For instance, both schools lack a functional library and dedicated staff person to manage those resources. That should be an embarrassment to us all. I cannot teach my students research without adequate materials both in print and in digital formats. It would seem as if many of our students to have their first true library experience when they go to college. I want more for my students than this.
While the current levy doesn’t solve this issue, it underscores the fact that the county has went without seemingly necessary resources and the levy only does a small part to correct the things the school system lacks. It also highlights that this is not a choice between in town or up the valley, but a choice between everyone having needed resources or everyone going without.
While I believe that people were wronged in the past and poor decisions were made, we cannot let that define the future of education in this county. The fact of the matter is that we will succeed or fail together. We have to choose to succeed together by voting to give schools resources that are necessary to give our students the same quality of education they could receive in other counties. This vote should been seen a referendum on the future education in Randolph County, not an indictment of the past errors.
“It Produces Tangible Change”
I believe that there is pervasive sense of gridlock in this nation. We elect leaders who talk about change or protecting our values, but on balance do nothing. Leaders pledge to create jobs or improve our communities, but nothing really happens.
I would argue that a vote for the school excess levy is a vote for tangible change that affects the county as a whole. This is a vote that you will see the results of for years to come and on places other than your tax ticket.
While this tangible change is easy to see inside the classrooms, it is harder to see outside the schools—especially if you do not have children in the schools. However, if you step back the case can be made that well funded schools can be huge economic drivers. Schools drive the economy by putting out educated workers and by attracting people who want to send their children to good schools. Good schools can raise property values (we all want the values of our home to appreciate) and attract more renters (or maybe even justify higher rents to live near the ‘better’ school).
There’s also a more nuanced benefit that comes from supporting public education by voting for an excess levy. That being the general sense our schools and students are worth investing in. Students have said unprompted many times in front of me that—especially if something is broken—“whelp, we’re poor so we can’t fix that”. By the time they’re in high school they are well aware that they have less than others. They only become more keenly aware when they travel to other parts of the state for school events and see schools that have things they don’t have. I think that sense that “we are worth less” or “we have less” can wear on students, teachers, and eventually the community. I think that collectively saying that we are all worth it has a ripple affect in building self-worth in our communities and building a future that is painted with optimism rather than despair.
“Everyone Else it Doing It: How to Live with a Broken System”
Normally, when an argument starts with “everyone else is doing it” it’s not a very good argument. However, hear this one out because I believe it is important to view the school excess levy in context of the rest of the state and in context of how schools are generally funded in the United States.
Schools in the United States are funded through a mixture of state, federal, and local property taxes. This system inherently produces inequalities. If property values are higher and taxes collections greater the schools will be nicer or conversely if property values are low and tax collections are low schools will not have as many resources. If also puts rural places a significant disadvantage because they’re simply are not as many resources to draw from.
To illustrate further the West Virginia Office of School Finance and the County Boards of Education reported in 2008 that 55.6% of county school funding came from the state, 11.8% came from the federal government, 2.6% from other local funds, and 30.0% from local property taxes. Essentially, our school systems are funded equitably for up to 67.4% of the total amount spent. We leave 32.6% of school funding up to property taxes. This creates savage inequalities between our school systems. I can firmly say that the students in Randolph County do not have as many resources as I had growing up three hours away in Berkeley County. This is wrong. We should come to terms that we have to do more to create a more equitably funded system across the state, but in the mean time we have to live in the world as it is.
That means joining the forty-two school systems (out of fifty-five) that currently have an excess school levy. Berkeley County uses 57.80% of their excess levy ($17 million dollars) to provide salary supplements to staff to prevent teachers from crossing over to Virginia and Maryland where salaries are much higher. Monongalia County uses it to supplement their summer programs, public libraries, and extracurricular activities. Harrison County uses their levy to support music, theatre, art, and athletics. These three counties all have resources our students don’t have and are representative of the aided value students can have in their education when the county comes together to support their school system.
The Taxes Aren’t High
I perceive the crux of the argument against the school levy is a combination of taxes are already high enough or would be too high or a general sentiment that new taxes aren’t a good thing. I believe that is a mischaracterization of the current tax rates in the county.
Before I go any further, I want point out that I am a registered Libertarian. My political party often yells out “taxation is theft” at our national convention. However, there comes a time when basic services must be rendered and there also comes a time to realize that if we want a better community we have to pay for it. We need government to tackle project that are bigger than a few individuals with a dream. We also have a duty to provide our children with good schools that are well funded and provide them with as much opportunity as possible. Our students should graduate from the school system knowing they had all the same opportunities as other students across the state. They should never have to feel like they were less than or that they went without.
Side-note: We should also realize that through local ballot measures like an excess levy we could have ‘nice things’ in our county. For instance Monongalia County recently voted for four excess levies: one for mass transit, one for parks, one for fire protection, and one for public libraries. Together costing the owner of a home assessed for $120,000 a $56.88 increase in their taxes. There is nothing stopping us from collectively coming together to invest in projects that benefit the county as a whole.
Anyhow, back to the reason why I believe taxes aren’t high. According the West Virginia Center for Budgets and Policy we have some of the lowest per capita property taxes in the nation. In 2011, the national average per capita property tax was $1,423 while West Virginia’s per capital property taxes were $770. That’s $658 dollars less than the nation average. Only six states pay fewer taxes per capita than West Virginia. When we zoom in on a county-by-county level we can also see that when compared to other counties we are taxed less than other counties. Our excess levies are very conservative and call for far lower rates as well. The total rate of the previous levy was 9.44¢ while counties—such as Harrison and Berkeley—were upwards of 20¢. Even with the school levy, more often than not your taxes are lower than many other places in the state.
The taxes aren’t too high and we have room to invest in our school system without over burdening the taxpayer. These taxes also do not put an undo burden on the elderly or disabled. Class II property—owner occupied homes and farms real estate—can fall under the Homestead Exemption if the owners are over the age of 65 or permanently disabled. This provides a $20,000 exemption in the total assessed value of the property. (If your home was assessed for $100,000 you would pay taxes on it as if we were assessed for $80,000.)
Whether I’ve managed to persuade you or not, I want to express that everyone is a stakeholder in the future of Randolph County Schools. We all can contribute if we openly communicate our concerns in a manner the respects multiple and often opposing points of view. With or without an excess school levy, there are tough times ahead. We are bound to see further cuts in state funding if the current trend in declining tax revenues continues statewide continues and we will continue to see reductions in payments made in lieu of taxes by the national forest (these were once a major revenue source for the school system, but have been dramatically reduced in recent years).
The only way we can come survive these tough times in to come together. We need the business community to communicate their workforce needs to the schools and the schools need to be reactive to those needs. Schools need to build partnerships in the community and work to give back to those that give so much to them.
We have to stop being contented with average schools. We have to desire more, give more, expect more, and do more. Together we can take a step in enacting that change at the ballot box on Tuesday.
Even if you vote against the levy I want to invite you to join me in creating and enacting a vision of a school system that is so much more than it is now. Like “Friends of Randolph County Schools” on Facebook to keep in the loop on ways we can improve education in the county. I want us together to create an infrastructure for change. If we mobilize together we have the chance to fix so much more than if we pick our battles individually.
This is also an open invitation to discuss your concerns with me personally. I am deadly serious when I dream of a better Randolph County Schools. Call me personally (304.433.4686) anytime after 3:30 on school days and I will gladly listen.
This is not about Tuesday’s election—this is about the next levy, school bond, or the next opportunity for us to affect change in education. This is about joining together to reckon with the hurt of the past, address it, and work to create a future where we don’t make those same mistakes. This is about restoring trust in the system.