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Levy failures have consequences

by Paul Darst

STAFF WRITER

Five years ago, Ervin Fink's job as finance director of Preston County Schools became much more difficult.

That year, county residents defeated the school's excess levy, which had been in existence since 1947.

Loss of the levy meant cuts in nearly every budget area -- cuts that hurt Preston schools in many ways.

"Obviously, there is less money available for just about everything," Fink said.

Harrison County voters will have a chance to decide the fate of their school system's excess levy during a special election Dec. 16.

The levy will provide $11,917,148 per year for the next five years if approved by voters.

That money will pay for nine educational programs: Art, band, guidance and special therapy, music, physical education, special education, science, vocational education and theater.

Other levy funds will be used for books and supplies, transportation, maintenance, technology, extra-curricular activities and salary supplements.

In counties with no excess levy, those kinds of programs suffer, said Joe Panetta, director of school finance for the West Virginia Department of Education.

"Levies are used to fund additional items beyond the state funding formula," Panetta said.

"It hurts because all of those programs will have to be cut."

Fink, who is now retired from Preston County schools, knows how difficult it is for a county to lose that kind of money.

"At the time (in 1995) we had no money to pay coaches," he said. "Now, they are paid out of athletic proceeds. The schools have to charge an athletic fee (to the participating students) to make money."

And it is not just extra-curricular activities that were affected, Fink said.

"We basically had cuts across the board," he said. "We had to cut a number of positions at the high school level. When you do that, it affects curriculum."

Additionally, the county had to drop its teacher salary supplement. That supplement was lost for one year until the state picked it up the following year.

But a salary supplement for administrators was permanently lost with the levy's defeat, Fink said. That makes it hard to keep and attract new principals.

"I don't think there's any doubt that not having a levy hurts a county," Fink said.

Preston is one of only 12 of West Virginia's 55 counties that have no excess levy. In this area, Barbour, Tucker and Randolph also have none.

Preston's levy failed, at least in part, because of timing, Fink said. That year, county residents had approved a hospital levy and a school bond that led to the construction of the consolidated Preston County High School.

Those factors coupled with already high property taxes led to voters saying no to the levy. Subsequent attempts to pass the levy failed too, Fink said.

And the state's funding formula has not made up the difference, Fink said.

"The state formula provides a basis for all counties in the state," he said. "Levies are used to take each county above that level."

Counties can survive without the excess levies, Fink said. But it isn't easy.

"It just makes it much more difficult to operate a school system," Fink said. "We have to compete with counties that have a financial advantage because of their levies."

Staff writer Paul Darst can be reached at 626-1404 or by e-mail at pdarst@exponent-telegram.com.

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