Jefferson (W.Va.) levy crucial for schools

October 17, 1997

David Markoe has been the Jefferson County, W.Va., Superintendent of Schools since July, but already he's facing one of the toughest jobs anyone in his post must do - selling taxpayers on renewing a special levy that raises a substantial proposition of the school system's budget.

During a conversation with Markoe this week, he told me that the Nov. 1 special election is "really critical for us, because the levy gives up $6.9 million. That's 20 percent of our budget."

And if it's turned down?

"It would probably affect every aspect of our budget," Markoe.

A 30-year veteran of the Frederick County, Md., school system, Markoe knows that without the supplemental money the levy puts into teacher salaries, the best and the brightest would go to systems in nearby Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.


"We have to have salaries where we can compete," Markoe said, but he acknowledged that even with the levy cash, starting salaries are well below other Tri-State area systems.

Isn't there some fat that can be cut out of the system so the schools could do without the levy?

"Back in the 1980s, a lot of the fat was cut out," Markoe said, adding that during that time, the decision was made to reduce the number of administrators in favor of keeping more teachers in the classroom. The system now serves 7,000 students with 430 teachers out of a total of 1,200-plus employees, Markoe said, adding that the total includes substitute teachers and bus drivers.

Another cost: Six nurses to cover 13 schools.

So many children are now on prescription medication, Markoe said, that there is a need for trained personnel to provide it for them on a timely basis.

So what is a levy, really?

According to Liz Thompson, the school system's Community Relations Officer, an excess levy is something allowed under state law so local school boards can ask citizens for additional help. The first one was approved in Jefferson County in 1946, the last one five years ago, Thompson said, adding that a majority of voters must okay it.

If the levy is renewed, taxes won't go up, she said, adding that it now generates 43.6 cents per $100 of assessed value, or about $261 of the property taxes due on a home with a market value of $100,000.

None of the levy money is used for anything outside the county, she said. All of it stays in Jefferson County.

In Berkeley County's recent past, there has been organized opposition from groups opposing excess levies for schools there, but Superintendent Markoe says nothing like that has surfaced in Jefferson County yet.

"We've had some isolated questions about it, and some senior citizens are concerned about it. A lot of them did not realize that there is a Homestead Act that allows seniors citizens who meet certain conditions to get a $20,000 reduction in the assessed value of their homes," Markoe said.

That would be a substantial savings, because of the way state law is written. At present, homes are assessed at 60 percent of market value for tax purposes. That means the owner of that $100,000 home has an assessment of just $60,000. Using the Homestead Act exemption would drop that assessment by another third.

If you'd like to find out how any of this affects your tax bill, you can call Robert Smith, the school system's treasurer, at (304) 728-9227. If you'd like an information sheet on the levy, call Liz Thompson at (304) 728-9252.

Now for the important question: Is this thing a good idea? Yes, for several reasons. It wouldn't raise taxes, but would keep them at current levels. It would allow the county to compete with its more populous neighbors for better teachers. And finally, it's put together in such a way that if other revenue sources turn up five years from now, voters will have a chance to review the situation again.

You might not expect him to say it, but Markoe says he prefers the West Virginia model to the school-funding system in Maryland, where a school board sets the budget, then turns to the county commissioners to fund it.

"At least here, the school board has some fiscal authority," he said.

It also has the responsibility of justifying its decisions to the voters, who can say no if they don't buy the justifications. Before anyone says no, however, I would urge them to get the information the school system is offering, and think about this question:

Can Jefferson County children handle a $7 million school budget cut without falling behind students in neighboring counties?

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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