Upshur County Schools assistant superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison addresses the Upshur County Commission in this file photo from September 2021.

Upshur County Schools officials sketch out ‘Vision of the Future’ ahead of bond levy election

BUCKHANNON – “We want our students to leave high school either college-ready or workforce-ready,” the assistant superintendent of Upshur County Schools told the Upshur County Commission Thursday.

Dr. Debra Harrison and other Upshur County Schools’ administrators see a recently unveiled plan for the future of Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School and Buckhannon-Upshur High School as the pathway to that more balanced approach to secondary education, i.e., one that would prepare both college-bound students to succeed in higher education and students who want to learn a trade and immediately begin work to secure a well-paying job.

Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus, Harrison and business manager/treasurer Jeffrey Perkins addressed the commission at its Sept. 16 meeting to outline their “Vision of the Future” plan that calls for the construction of a new comprehensive career and technical high school at a cost of about $62 million and a $7- to $9-million-dollar renovation of the current Buckhannon-Upshur High School building that would transform it into a new middle school.

The total cost of the project is approximately $70 million.

“Our system will be balanced,” Harrison said at Thursday’s meeting. “We’ll still have that heavy emphasis on academics, but we’re adding that CTE piece because we want all of our graduates to be productive.”

Both schools would be located on the same campus complex in Tennerton, and Thursday’s visit was one of many Upshur County Schools officials plan to make ahead of a Jan. 15, 2022, bond levy election, which, if passed, would allow for the issuance of $49 million in bonds to help cover the cost of construction and renovation.

Stankus said school administrators and Upshur County Board of Education members were mere “messengers,” communicating a vision that had come to light through a series of meetings with businesses, industry, governmental officials, residents, civic organizations, and community stakeholders over the past couple years. Those meetings were designed to solicit feedback that enabled the school system to craft a CEFP, or Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan – something every county must submit to the W.Va. Department of Education every 10 years.

Why a comprehensive community and technical high school?  

Community stakeholders during CEFP planning meeting said they’d rather have their tax dollars pay for building a new high school than a new middle school, and specifically one that incorporated more career and technical education options.

“Not all of our students go to college, and that’s OK,” Stankus said. “There are so many careers – so many options – that make better money than what I’m making right now. Electricians, welders and contractors all make great livings, so why do we keep saying, ‘You have to go to a four-year college?’”

Stankus said vocational programs and certifications that could be earned at the new high school would be determined locally, mentioning veterinary technician, medical coding, aerospace engineering, dental assisting and drone piloting as a few potential program options.

Upshur County Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus addresses the commission.

Moving middle-schoolers into the current B-UHS building would also enable students in grades 6-8 to get a taste of CTE programs earlier than they otherwise would, Stankus said.

“We are the only county in the state who would have, to this degree, a middle school career technical program,” Stankus said. “In other words, all of our middle school students, when they’re at the [newly renovated middle school], they will have access to ProStart – that’s our cooking program. They will have access to the greenhouses, the farms, the agriculture programs, the horticulture, the floriculture, the laboratories for ag mechanics and ag business. We have a full business and entrepreneurship laboratory at the high school with a business teacher, fabrication through access to 3-D printers.”

“Those are the kind of resources our middle-school students will have access to, so to the greatest degree possible, we will have a fully career-technical middle school in addition to a CTE high school,” she added.

During CEFP meetings, attendees said they wanted a new CTE high school to prepare graduates for careers right here in north-central West Virginia. Harrison said jumpstarting that effort at the middle-school level could be a game-changer.

“We lose a lot of our kids’ excitement about learning [in middle school] because they’re more hands-on learners, and they want to be more actively involved in the learning, so if we get them interested in or passionate about a possible vocation at the middle school, then that’s going to be more impetus for them to be effective and work hard at the high school level because they see a reason for what it is they’re learning.”

A chance to earn a high school diploma and an associate degree

The superintendent said school officials want to expand opportunities for high-schoolers to earn two-year associate degrees by partnering with nearby colleges, which would enable students to graduate not only with a high school diploma, but also with a two-year associate degree.

“That means dollars and cents to families,” Stankus said. “If you can graduate high school with a two-year associate degree free … that really means something to families and to students.”

However, regardless of whether the bond passes or fails, best practices in secondary education are trending toward more project-based, hands-on learning and away from what Stankus called a ‘silo’ approach, in which subjects are taught in isolation from one another.

Harrison said the school system will still stress traditional academic disciplines and cater to college-bound students, and in that vein, administrators have been working with area colleges and institutions to form ongoing partnerships that would bring additional degree programs to B-UHS.

“So far, our work with colleges has been piece-meal, but our plan is to work very closely with Glenville State College, Fairmont State, and I’m very pleased to let everyone know that we’ll be meeting with West Virginia Wesleyan College on the 28th to talk about how we can build that partnership with them as well,” Harrison said.

Financials

Perkins, Upshur County Schools’ treasurer and business manager, said in total, a new high school and refurbished middle school would cost about $70 million ($62 million for the high school and $8 million for the middle school). However, if the bond levy passes, the School Building Authority of West Virginia has indicated it’s optimistic about supplying $21 million in grant money, leaving county taxpayers responsible for the remaining $49 million.

The county has already applied for a $500,000 planning grant, which would allow the design process to advance, and officials will find out if they have been awarded that grant in late September. Then, in December 2021, Upshur County Schools will get official word as to whether they’ve locked down the $21 million. That $21 million actually being disbursed to the school system, however, is contingent on the outcome of the Jan. 15 bond levy, which must pass by a simple majority, Stankus explained.

“We’re going to put everything we have into [securing the planning grant and $21 million construction grant], because that $49 million is a big ask, we know, from our community,” she said.

Initially, Upshur County Schools estimated the bond levy would only cost the average taxpayer $70 annually or about $6 a month, but Perkins on Thursday said the amount would be closer to the current special levy rate.  

“If you would take your levy rate that you currently have, it would be very close to that rate – the special levy rate – which is half of the standard tax rate for the schools,” Perkins said.

Perkins said he would be working with county assessor Dustin Zickefoose to arrive at accurate estimates, and Stankus said a calculator that will enable taxpayers to input their information and calculate what they would likely pay will soon be posted on upshurschools.com.

Business manager Jeffrey Perkins answers questions about how much the ‘Vision of the Future’ project will cost taxpayers.

“We know this is a big ask from our community, but one positive is that current interest rates for a bond are projected at 1.15 percent,” Perkins said, “so, for planning purposes, it will be a .85 to 1.25 percent rate that the bonds are going to be sold at, creating a bond debt of about $7.5 million.”

When the bond levy for a new middle school failed in 2011, the interest rate then was 6.5 percent, meaning the bond debt then would have amounted to $26.6 million, he stated.

Qs-and-As

Commissioners had several questions, including the bond issuance time frame (15 years) and how long building the new high school would take (the facility must be finished within three years since state School Building Authority is providing part of the funding).

Commissioner Sam Nolte asked how the new CTE high school would fit in with Fred W. Eberle Technical Center, which offers a variety of vocational education programs and certifications to high-schoolers and adult learners in Upshur, Lewis and Barbour counties.

Commission president Kristie Tenney and commissioner Terry Cutright

Stankus assured commissioners the proposed high school “will not be in competition with Fred Eberle at all” because programs won’t be duplicated. School administrators are working “hand-in-hand” with Rebecca Bowers-Call, the director of Fred Eberle, Stankus said. She also noted that spots in Fred Eberle’s programs are somewhat limited, since the center serves a three-county area.

Commission president Kristie Tenney asked about how many degree and certification programs would be available, and Stankus said no number is set in stone and the school system wants to remain flexible.

Stankus said the high school is a beacon of light amid a somewhat bleak present moment.

“Someone said to me, ‘Sara, people need something to look forward to. People need hope, and with all of the challenges we face, it’s good to talk about the future, especially when it involves our kids and it’s something really positive – something that’s so filled with hope,'” she said.

Find a list of public forums scheduled throughout the county to discuss the “Vision of the Future” proposal here.