William D. Duty
President, Mingo County Board of Education
“Because taxpayers are consenting to be taxed in excess of what the law requires when they approve excess levies, providing full and complete information to them so that an informed decision can be made would be good public policy.”
— Byrd v. Board of Education
Excess levies are an example of a rare moment in politics: citizens choosing to be taxed more heavily than required by the law.
In West Virginia, there has been a tradition of excess levies imposed by local boards of education. West Virginia Code 11-8-16 provides the specifics for the power to lay (levy) an excess levy. Levies imposed by boards of education require only a simple majority of the votes of those who show up at the polls for passage, and the outcome affects every taxpayer in the county. Therefore, all should recognize the necessity of informing themselves on the nature of the issue and then exercising their right to vote on these levies.
Given the importance of proper stewardship in taxing and spending, it is important to maintain transparency and accountability in this process. These levies should be subject to the scrutiny of an informed public. Under normal circumstances, oversight for the expenditure of school funds would be entrusted to the local elected board of education.
However, as the State Board of Education intervened into the administration of Mingo County Schools, the county board has no authority as to the expenditure of funds, which would include funds collected with this levy. This levy has effectively been called by the State Board, and that body will have control over how the money is spent. In essence, there is no democratic mechanism by which the taxpayers of Mingo County can control how their money is spent.
In looking at the past four levy elections (including the proposed 2014 levy) in Mingo County, it is important to note the tremendous benevolence of the citizens regarding their support of excess levies. This benevolence can be expressed in dollars using the amounts of money the people have paid historically and will pay including the proposed levy on March 23, 2013. This will be approximately $160,000,000.00, or about $8,000,000.00 annually extra money for school purposes.
While Mingo County has been generous in school support, a number of counties in West Virginia have either failed to ever pass a special school excess levy or do not have excess levies at the present time. These counties are Barbour, Braxton, Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, Roane, Summers, Tucker and Webster, a total of 12 counties from the 55 counties comprising West Virginia.
Where then do counties, with or without excess levies, derive funding for education?
This question is of particular importance because the West Virginia Constitution has given high priority to the education of the citizens. It tells us both who shall provide and the quality of education that shall be provided:
“The Legislature SHALL provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.”(WV Constitution, Article XII 12-1).
Further, this same constitution states that the Legislature shall provide for the support of free schools by appropriating thereto — and by general taxation of persons and property or otherwise.
A recent article by Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval stresses the consequences of this constitutional mandate:
“West Virginia spends about $3.5 billion (state and federal dollars) on public education every year. That’s a lot of money, especially considering the state’s small size. In fact, West Virginia ranks 8th in education spending relative to income.”
There could be a bit of irony in this statement since Mingo County ranks 8th in the state in per pupil expenditures.
The funding for education in West Virginia, however, comes from a variety of sources, which is important to understand in looking at the case of Mingo County. The West Virginia Legislature has historically been generous in the funding allocation of the state’s limited resources to education. Mingo County will receive (estimated for the year ending June 30, 2013, mandated by WV Code 11-8-12) $26,781,610.00 from the state as aid to the schools.
The federal government also plays an important role in the funding of education, as Mingo County will receive an estimated $900,000 in unrestricted funds from that source. The taxpayers of Mingo County also contribute to funding as mandated for their share of public school support. These are funds collected at the local level (real and personal property taxes) estimated at $8,000,000 for this tax year.
It is well to remember the efforts taken by former members of the local board of education, as stated in the Mingo County Comprehensive Plan (2000-2010), to provide a thorough and efficient education system. At the crux of this effort was the consolidation of four high schools, Burch, Gilbert, Matewan and Williamson into a new comprehensive school.
The plan mentioned above (CEFP) has cited the annual savings for the closure of Cline, Gilbert and Varney Elementary Schools—all closed in 2004—as $3,500,000. These savings are derived from the personnel, utilities, insurance, maintenance and other costs attributed to these closures.
At the close of this school year, 2013, the CEFP indicates further savings will accrue from the closure of Burch Elementary (contingent upon School Building Authority funding), Matewan Middle, Williamson Middle, as well as two high schools, Matewan and Williamson, which were not closed when the new Mingo Central High School was opened in 2011. Next year, Mingo County will be comprised of nine or maybe 10 schools.
Given the above historical and factual information, the taxpayers consenting to be taxed more heavily in excess of what the law requires should ask questions regarding the expenditure of more money for education in the spirit of Byrd v. Board of Education. I have some questions of my own:
1. Who is the board/entity who takes the responsibility to determine that there are insufficient funds available to provide a thorough and efficient education?
2. Who is the one person that has the prevailing power to spend, not only budgeted but unrestricted, funds amounting to millions of dollars?
3. Who is the person accountable for the tracking and inventorying the millions of dollars spent on equipment, technology (including iPads, iPods, computers, televisions, tools, materials, etc.)?
4. Who has taken the responsibility to address the same issues facing our state in the recent (January 2012) Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia? Has this person addressed these issues in the proposed excess levy:
• Maximize Limited Personnel Resources
• Better Connecting the Education System to Workforce and Career Futures
• Mandate 180 days of instructional time (will require legislative input).
• Improve Teacher Compensation. Please note that in the proposed levy NO new dollars have been included nor have been included in at least 20 years, for personnel.
• Strengthen School Leadership by Investing in Principals.
• Launch a plan to Recruit the Best Teachers and Improve Training and Licensure and to Retain our own best teachers and support staff?
Mingo County, as well as the state of West Virginia as a whole, has opportunities that, if utilized, could well make our students the leader in education reformation. As voters, we must ask ourselves these questions as we prepare to go to the polls and vote on the critical issue of the excess levy.
It was William Shakespeare who said, “Failure has many architects.” It is my belief that a well informed populace and a transparent and accountable administration can be architects for success. We have a responsibility as citizens to ensure that our government spends our money fairly and effectively for the betterment of everyone, especially our children.