Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter
By Ellie Heffernan, Mountain State Spotlight
MILL CREEK – Steve Wamsley’s Randolph County roots run deep. He’s been principal of Tygarts Valley Middle/High School, south of Elkins, for over a decade. Four generations of his family have attended school there.
The Tygarts Valley community is full of pride. The school’s hallways are decorated with splashes of red paint and murals of bulldogs, the school’s mascot. Pictures of almost every graduating class are on display in the cafeteria: The very first shows the Class of 1924, which included Wamsley’s grandmother.
But it’s obvious that some facility upgrades are needed. Wamsley, his father and his children have all had P.E. class in the same gym, built in 1950. The basketball courts aren’t up to code: with out-of-bounds lines less than three feet from the brick walls, they’re hazardous to kids diving for basketballs.
Both the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms are windowless dungeons with chipped, dingy floors.
“The shower rooms are embarrassing,” Wamsley said. “They’re underground. They’re very small. There’s very little room to dress or to meet with our team. And we have multiple teams that will refuse to play us because they don’t want to come here and be around those lockers.”
Many West Virginia counties use excess school levies to undertake facility upgrades like the ones needed at Tygarts Valley. These additional property taxes provide extra education funding, and they must be regularly approved by a county’s voters.
In Randolph County, money from the most recent levy proposal would have purchased new textbooks and arts supplies, hired new teachers and boosted public library budgets — in addition to updating aging schools. But Randolph County voters have rejected school levies four times since 2015, making it one of only 11 counties statewide without this additional funding.
And even in the state’s 44 counties with levies, they aren’t a sure thing. Over the past few years, levies were barely renewed in several counties. Only 156 votes saved Morgan County’s school levy from failing. In Doddridge, 185 votes — just 4% of the counties’ registered voters — made a difference.
Relying on levies is risky, and counties like Randolph show the consequences when they fail.
Statewide, West Virginia’s counties without school levies spend among the smallest sums per student. In Randolph, the county spends nearly $1,800 less per student than the state average.
While there are many factors that go into student achievement, multiple studies have found correlations between student spending and test scores. Students in counties without levies are also less likely to earn proficient scores on statewide reading assessments, according to data from the West Virginia Department of Education.
In Randolph more than two-fifths of students fail to meet grade-level expectations on statewide math assessments and more than a third fail to meet expectations on reading assessments.
And when voters reject a levy, counties have few other tools to increase school spending.
Verbal threats and a lack of buy-in
Former Elkins High students Alainah Johnson and Mikaela DeMotto remember the last time Randolph County tried to pass a school levy. It was 2019, and the proposal on the ballot would’ve given schools an additional $3.2 million annually for five years.
DeMotto said the need was obvious: She used moldy paint during her high school art class because Elkins High couldn’t afford new supplies.
Johnson fought for change, picketing with her friends in support of the school levy.
“People would drive by and tell us to kill ourselves and call us really awful names, just because we were trying to pass the levy,” Johnson said.
Randolph Schools Superintendent Debbie Schmidlen said school officials tried to increase support for the measure.
“It’s not like we’ve just sat back and hoped for the passage,” Schmidlen said. “We were out every night, starting in January until Election Day, visiting different communities and different organizations.”
But the levy failed overwhelmingly, with nearly two-thirds of Randolph County voters casting ballots against it.
Some people who opposed the levy were anti-bigger government. Others were genuinely struggling to make ends meet, and $100 a year could make a difference.
Some derisively nicknamed the levy “Turf the County.” They believed it would unnecessarily waste money on athletics — without spending enough on academics. Others thought it would have solely benefited the more populous, wealthier areas of the county.
Wamsley, who witnessed a school levy pass in 2010, thinks more recent levies failed partly because there wasn’t enough buy-in among parents and school staff.
Even he didn’t feel included in discussions about how the last levy would be spent. The former superintendent told him the district would spend some of the extra money laying turf on Tygarts Valley’s athletic fields. Wamsley would’ve rather spent money on fixing the gym.
Perceptions of a wasteful county school board have lasted into the present as voters criticize how federal COVID-19 aid was spent. Why couldn’t the county just use that money to fix Tygarts Valley’s gym?
“You’re happy to have those funds come in, and it’s really exciting at first,” said Amanda Smith, a Tygarts Valley parent and graduate and president of the county Board of Education. “And it’s hard to accommodate that spending and have the public understand. Because, sure, Tygarts Valley needs a new gym, and I’d love to have a new gym, but I can’t spend that federal money on a new gym.”
Is there another way?
Randolph County parent Mandy Weirich voted against multiple school levies, despite having children in the public school system. But she isn’t against increasing funding for schools.
She believes excess levies should be used for special short-term expenses. Forcing schools to rely on levies perpetuates inequality between counties, she said, and the state should do more to provide regular education funding.
“I feel like the state has failed the county systems,” Weirich said. “If you go to Morgantown, you’re going to have a much better system, because they have a huge population. They’re going to be more willing to sign on to a levy, because they have more disposable income.”
West Virginia already spends a large percentage of its gross domestic product on education, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute. But it’s still not enough to catch up with wealthier states’ spending. The reason for that is the state’s low GDP, said Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. A large percentage of a small amount of money still isn’t much.
The authors of the EPI report strongly suggest increasing federal education funding to address educational disparities between states. But without raising property taxes, raising the income tax or sales tax are some of the only tools lawmakers can use to increase school funding on the state level, O’Leary said.
Instead, West Virginia lawmakers want to cut taxes. They’re asking voters to approve this fall an amendment that would let them cut personal property taxes. They’re also considering proposals to reduce or eliminate the state income tax. At the same time, they’ve pushed for school voucher programs and allowed charter schools and microschools – including one in Elkins – to open, which will drain money and resources from public schools.
Even so, there’s no guarantee that replacing property-tax-based local school funding – including school levies – with state funding would reduce disparities between counties. Besides potentially increasing the tax burdens for everyday West Virginians, income or sales tax hikes would also force schools to depend on a more volatile source of funding.
“Property tax is nice and stable. It just grows steadily every year,” O’Leary said. “The income can leave. The coal can leave. The gas can leave. But the land is always there. And the property is always there.”
And for now, students in counties without levies miss out on opportunities.
Democratic state Delegate Cody Thompson, a former Elkins High teacher, began teaching in Randolph when there was still an excess school levy. He says the funding allowed him to buy notebooks and pencils for every student, regardless of their family’s income. But when the levy wasn’t renewed, he stopped buying most of those supplies.
“I had to cut back on basically anything,” Thompson said.
He said he still bought some basic materials, but the lack of funding meant his students ultimately missed out on educational experiences.
“I bought markers, crayons, colored pencils, but I could not do really truly awesome things. I would’ve loved to have taken them on field trips. Just even to city hall or to Charleston. But you have to have money.”
Reach reporter Ellie Heffernan at firstname.lastname@example.org.