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by Gail Marsh
(Sunday, June 21)Harrison County voters narrowly approved a special school bond in 1991, allowing the Board of Education to acquire a debt of $37.9 million and to issue bonds in order to build two new schools and make additions and improvements to a number of other county schools.
According to the original agreement, the board had three years, until late 1994, to complete and pay for all the projects.
Seven years later, school board officials said nearly all of the projects are complete, but the projects have cost millions more than the bond could pay for. More than $10 million had to come out of the board's general fund for such things as purchasing land, adding air-conditioning or enlarging some building projects.
"After going to each of the sites and talking with the educators and parents about what was really needed, we added to many of the projects. That made our original cost estimates inadequate," said Neil Quinn, clerk of the works for the Harrison County Board of Education.
One resident believes that the bond money was not used for its intended purposes, allowing some schools to come out on top while others are still waiting for renovations.
Paul Hamrick, president of the Liberty High School Academic Boosters Club, said he is still waiting for tennis courts and other improvements provided for in the bond for Liberty High.
"All items called for in the bond are not completed and the balance is zero. Voters approved the bond with the understanding that certain projects would get done, and they haven't been," he said.
Quinn said that the contract has already been approved for the Liberty tennis courts and work should start by the end of June. The board is also waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to respond to a request for help on the school's softball field.
"We need some help moving dirt out there, and they often use heavy equipment during reserve training. Hopefully, we can get them out there," he said.
Quinn said Liberty is also on the list for parking lot improvements.
"Liberty and Lincoln High schools should both get some repairs done to their parking lots, but we don't have the actual date when that will begin," he said.
Hamrick also questioned why the walks have not been covered at South Harrison High School, something called for in the bond.
Quinn said the school principal at that time asked that the money be used to widen the walks instead of covering them, and that was done instead. Quinn said the board does intend to put up a canopy at a later date.
Quinn said the bond money ran out during the construction of Robert C. Byrd High School in 1995. Since that time, money for unfinished projects had to be pulled from the general fund.
"We spent a great deal of money when changes were made for projects at individual schools. We decided to increase the size at Bridgeport Middle School and make several changes at Robert C. Byrd High School and that ran up the cost," he said.
Along with $85,000 for a main air-conditioning unit at Lincoln, Adamston Elementary received $100,000 above the bond call to purchase land. North View Elementary had a cost overrun of $20,000, while Simpson Elementary needed an additional $100,000 after the original $200,000 bond allocation was used to buy land.
Renovations at Johnson Elementary went $200,000 over bond estimates, and a new addition at Gore Middle School cost an extra $160,000. Liberty High School is already over $700,000, but more money will be needed to finish the work.
"The cost overruns used up the bond money, but we are committed to see that every project is completed," Quinn said.
Hamrick said he disagrees with the board's move that allowed the lease-purchase of $2.4 million in stadium equipment, science lab equipment, lockers, bleachers and other furnishings for Robert C. Byrd High School.
"This is incurring a debt for a future board, and according to the West Virginia Code, that is illegal," he said.
Sharon Haddix, board treasurer, said the lease purchases will be paid off by June 30, after the bond is refinanced, and the board will be able to use the savings to do other needed maintenance projects. Because the lease-purchases have a yearly escape clause, future boards are not required to pay off the debt, she said.
"If something would happen and we wouldn't have the money, we could return everything and be out of debt. It was the only way we could finish the school on time," Haddix said.
James Hunt, a Clarksburg City Council member who co-chaired the Committee to Support the Harrison County School Bond in 1991, said he still believes the passage of the bond was a good idea.
"We needed to do something to meet the educational needs in our area and we felt the bond was the best way to go. We have some beautiful facilities because of it," he said.
Hunt said there was a good bit of opposition at first by voters who were not going to benefit from the new high school or the new middle school. They later supported the bond when they saw it also meant getting some projects done in their areas.
"The bond was meant to benefit everyone, and that's the reason it passed. We've left it up to the professionals who oversee education to make sure that all the projects are completed," he said.