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Upshur Schools officials highlight low interest rates in effort to garner support for new high school

BUCKHANNON – Constructing a comprehensive career-and-technical high school would, undoubtedly, come at a noticeable cost to taxpayers.

However, due to historically low interest rates, that price tag could likely to be somewhat less for Upshur County residents in 2022 than it would have been in 2011, if a bond levy initiative intended to fund a new middle school had passed instead of failed, the treasurer of Upshur County Schools said last week.

Upshur County Schools treasurer/business manager Jeffrey Perkins, superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus and assistant superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison addressed Buckhannon City Council at its Sept. 16 meeting to provide an overview of their “Vision for the Future.”

The plan calls for the construction of a new comprehensive career-and-technical education 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, and on Jan. 15, 2022, voters will head to the polls to decide if they want to support the initiative. Since the School Building Authority of West Virginia has indicated it will likely award the school system $21 million — or close to one-third of the total project cost — it’s up to Upshur County Schools to come up with the remaining $49 million.

If passed – just a simple majority is required, Stankus said – the Jan. 15, 2022, bond levy would allow for the issuance of $49 million in bonds over a 15-year period to cover the cost of construction and renovation. Perkins said there’s no better time to pass a bond levy, given current interest rates.

A rare time for interest rates

Perkins compared the current interest rate for bonds, which he estimated at 1.15 percent, to the interest rate for bonds in 2011 – 6.5 percent – when the middle school bond levy failed.

“In 2011, we ran a $36 million bond initiative for new middle school that failed, and at that time, interest rates were 6.5 percent … so, we would have paid $36 million for the bond and $29 million in interest because of the interest rate over 15 years,” Perkins said. “Now, interest rates are 1.15 percent, so we will be paying $49 million for the bond and roughly $7.5 million in interest so this is actually costing us less now for [a $49 million bond] than our $36 million bond was projected to cost in 2011.”

Perkins said he wasn’t going to portray the “Vision of the Future” as an inexpensive undertaking.

“I won’t lie to you: this is an expensive project. It costs money to build a high school, it costs money to renovate [the current high school into] a middle school,” he said. “This is a lot of money and like everybody else, I don’t like paying any more taxes than anyone, so we are working as hard as we can to be as frugal as we can but also have the product that we need for the students of Upshur County.”

Councilman David Thomas, who spent most of his life working in finance, said low interest rates can be a huge boon for people and communities.

“Low interest rates make such a huge difference for individuals and for communities regarding what they want to do for the future,” Thomas remarked. “Interest rates will go up at some point in time, and I think we’ve got to take advantage of this window we have right now. It’s really important to get people in the community to understand that.”

Envisioning the ‘Vision of the Future’

Stankus and Harrison explained the new high school would not only continue to cater to college-bound students, but also offer more career and technical education programs, which could be determined by the school system and community.

“Our community can decide what we want to teach in our high school,” Stankus said, mentioning aeronautics engineering, medical assisting, medical coding and dental assisting as examples. The superintendent emphasized the proposed comprehensive CTE high school would not compete with Fred W. Eberle Technical Center, but rather, “expand on what Fred Eberle offers.”

“With our plan, our middle-school students will move into our high school, which will undergo a $7 to $9-million-dollar renovation,” Stankus said. “It will have a new front, a new interior inside to really make it into a middle school, but that (renovated) middle school will be a comprehensive career-technical middle school. We will be the only county in the state, to this extent, offering career and technical education to middle school students.”

Stankus said even if voters don’t have school-age kids, they should consider the financial impact the health of school systems have on cities and counties, especially when economic development officials and health care providers attempt to recruit businesses, industries and credentialed professionals. The president of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Skip Gjolberg, has told Stankus that when the hospital is trying to attract medical professionals, often the first question they ask him is about the quality of the school system, she said.

“School touches every part of our community, and our students deserve the best schools we can give them,” Stankus said.

Pre-CTE for middle-schoolers

Harrison explained Upshur County Schools is embracing a “balanced” approach to education that provides pathways for both college-bound students, workforce-bound students or students who might want test out both. That’s why school administrators want to make it possible for students to graduate from high school with both a diploma and a two-year associate degree, should they choose to earn one.

“What we want to do is to develop one or two or even three associate degree programs with different institutions,” Harrison said. “That opens doors for students academically preparing to go on to college. Our students will be able to go on to college and only have to pay for two years of college, instead of four years. We want this to be what we call a flexible education for our students, where if they want to go on to earn a college degree, they can, or they can do a CTE program or combine them, so they’ll have a myriad of opportunities.”

Harrison said giving middle-schoolers a chance to sample career and technical education could be a game-changer.

“We have students we lose at the middle school level because they’re not interested in academics because they don’t see a purpose for it,” Harrison said. “With these pre-CTE skills we will be offering them that at middle-school level, they’ll get an opportunity to make a connection with the idea of, ‘I have to know how to multiply in order to do this,’ or ‘I have to be able to measure in order to accomplish this,’ so it’s going to give our middle school students early on a reason for learning.”

Councilman Pam Bucklew said lassoing the interest of youth at the middle-school level through pre-CTE classes seems crucial.

“I think those classes should be mandatory, not just an elective,” Bucklew told the administrators. “I think they should be required to try at least one [CTE program] out.”

The Upshur Bond 2022 Calculator: What might you owe?

There is now a calculator on the Upshur County Schools’ website that will enable people to enter their property data and obtain a rough estimate of what they might pay if the bond passes. The treasurer said if the interest rate is still holding steady at 1.15 percent in January, a resident who owns a house valued at $70,000 and a vehicle or other personal property valued at $30,000, that person would pay about $170 extra annually or $15 extra monthly.

“If you have a house that’s valued at $70,000, you pay 60 percent rate (the assessed value), which is $42,000, which makes the annual cost for our bond at $91.98 for a $70,000 house,” Perkins said. “Then, if you have a vehicle or other property that’s valued at $30,000, the assessed value (60 percent of $30,000) is $18,000, so that cost would be $78.84, which would be a total of about $170 a year or $15 a month.”

The Upshur Bond Calculator 2022 and Bond Tax Chart 2022 can be found by clicking ‘Business Office’ under the ‘Departments’ tab, selecting ‘Finance Documents’ and scrolling down, where the two spreadsheets can be found and downloaded.

City recorder Randy Sanders, a B-UHS alumni, said he was “100 percent” supportive of the bond initiative, while mayor Robbie Skinner called it a “tremendously important investment for our future” and urged B-UHS graduates and Buccaneer fans alike to support the bond levy.

“I hope and strongly encourage the folks who live here – the folks who bleed blue-and-white – to do it and do it now,” he said. “We have an opportunity to lead the state in something pretty cool and be on the cutting edge.”

Councilman CJ Rylands said he was pleased to hear the local board of education would be given some flexibility and discretion in curriculum decisions.

“I think we ask our kids to stay here, or want them to stay, but we aren’t necessarily giving them employable skill sets for this demographic region, so I think it’s all positive and I look forward to this coming to pass,” Rylands said.

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