BUCKHANNON – For several decades, Buckhannon City Council hasn’t taken an official stance on an Upshur County Schools levy call. Council members and prior administrations have shied away from endorsing or denouncing the measure that currently comprises more than $3 million of the school system’s budget.
But that trend changed Thursday night when council members verbally agreed to support a resolution explicitly stating council’s support for the excess levy renewal, which will be on the ballot during a special election slated for Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019.
Council members haven’t approved the resolution yet, but are expected to consider and vote on it at a meeting in December.
Upshur County Schools superintendent Dr. Sara Stankus, assistant superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison and longtime board of education member Dr. Greenbrier Almond attended council’s Thursday meeting to explain the details of the levy renewal proposal.
Stankus said the school system’s motto as administrators advocate for levy passage in a variety of venues throughout the county has been “Upshur Strong.”
“That’s kind of been our motto as we’ve traveled around talking to folks about what’s happening in the schools and the levy, but we believe that ‘Upshur Strong’ means that if we have great schools, we’ll have good businesses, good community support, and all of it works together,” Stankus said. “So together, we can be Upshur Strong. I love this community, and I believe in what we’re doing here in Upshur County.”
The current levy is set to expire June 30, 2019, and if passed, the levy renewal would keep intact the $3.2 million a year – 10 percent of the school system’s budget – that Upshur County Schools collects “for our schools, for our children,” Stankus said.
Stankus reviewed the details of the proposal.
“One of the things that this levy pays for is one of your police officers, Officer Stewart (Sgt. Mark Stewart, the Prevention Resource Officer at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School) and also our PRO officers at the middle school and the high school,” Stankus said. “Those people are so effective in the schools. Students come to them and talk to them about things that they wouldn’t tell their teachers, and so those PRO officers’ … salaries are paid for through this levy.”
Although the school system recently received a large grant to install security cameras law enforcement officers will be able to monitor in real time in every school, Stankus said administrators want to upgrade camera systems on the buses – a project levy funds would be used to accomplish.
If passed, the levy renewal would also support the following: instructional and technology tools for a 21st-century curriculum and instruction, including free textbooks; improving and updating school libraries; facility and equipment maintenance; student-related community services, including free admission for all students, senior citizens, active military and veterans to school-sponsored extra-curricular activities; and art, music and athletic extra-curricular programs.
“This year, we’re adding to our levy call active military and veterans to that free ticket to get into the sporting events and arts events in schools,” Stankus said. “My father was a World War II vet, and my father-in-law. We come from a family of military and I’m very proud of that, and I’m really proud that our school system is putting that in just as another way to say thank you to these folks who have sacrificed so deeply.”
Harrison, the assistant superintendent, said she thought it was important to emphasize that tax rates aren’t going up.
“While we’re adding some things to the levy and re-evaluating how we spend those dollars, the levy will not be increased at all,” she said. “It will still be the same … We will just be looking at spending the money more wisely and looking at the things that we need to do for our students.”
Stankus sees the levy as a contract of sorts between the school system and the community, she said.
“The levy call is kind of a contract between the schools and the community because we say, ‘OK, we’re going to spend this much for safety, this much for instructional supplies,’ and we put a dollar amount beside of that,” she said.
Mayor David McCauley asked Stankus about “the propriety” of considering a resolution of support for the school levy.
“I’m not aware, in my 36-year association with the city, of council ever having done that before,” McCauley said. “I had advanced it with previous administrations, and there was a sort of shying away from, ‘We don’t want to be political.'”
“Well,” McCauley added, “this is a political body, and I think there’s not any reason that we shouldn’t consider that.”
Stankus said she hadn’t expected council to pass a resolution of support, but the move would be much appreciated.
She added that the quality of a county’s school system has the potential to attract or repel individuals and businesses who are toying with the idea of moving to Upshur County.
According to Stankus, Skip Gjolberg, administrator of WVU Medicine St. Joseph’s Hospital, said physicians pondering whether to make the move to the area always ask about the school system.
“That is the first thing that a physician will ask when he or she is being recruited to this community – how are the schools? Where can we go to have our children educated?”
In recent months, Stankus said Atlantic Coast Pipeline workers have come to the board office with questions about which elementary schools in the county are the highest-performing.
“We’ve had the blue-collar workers coming to the board office saying, ‘Which are the best schools in your community?’ … So, from the physician to the pipeliner, everyone wants what’s best for their children, and that’s the common place all of us can meet,” she said.
Councilman Robbie Skinner said failing to pass the levy renewal wouldn’t be a wise move for Upshur County.
“It’s definitely a black mark if we do not pass this,” Skinner said. “We’re well-known around the state for having a levy. Most of the county school systems have levies, and this just continues the momentum that we have here.”
“I know this might ruffle feathers here, but I am the only one that is a graduate of Buckhannon-Upshur High School and went all the way from kindergarten at Academy through the high school,” Skinner added, “and I can remember in third grade, we did not have a levy, and parents got together to photocopy textbooks because there was only one textbook available for a classroom. We couldn’t take a textbook home to do homework.”
“It’s crucial – we can’t go back to that,” he said. “This is crucial to our town being the shining star in the state that it is … We’re with you.”
When McCauley asked if any council members would be opposed to he and city attorney Tom O’Neill drafting a resolution in support of the levy renewal, no council members expressed opposition to the idea.
“We’ll fire it up for December,” the mayor told Stankus. “We’ll do everything we can to make things successful on Jan. 19.”