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Voters face hefty school building decision

May 07, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Some may balk at shelling out more in taxes for a new high school in Jefferson County, but the county's schools superintendent has his own dollars and cents argument.

"It's too good (of) a deal to pass up," said Superintendent R. Steven Nichols.

If Jefferson County voters approve a $19 million bond during Tuesday's primary election, it will be matched with $28 million in funding from other sources.

Taxpayers' money, estimated to be around $50 a year for people whose homes could sell for $100,000, will be used to build a new high school and renovate Jefferson High School, Nichols said.

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Other funding sources are $19 million from the state School Building Authority, a $6 million Economic Development Grant Committee grant, and a 57-acre land donation valued at $3 million.

If the bond fails, the other money will be lost.

Nichols is optimistic that the bond will pass, but he has a plan in mind should it fail.

"Plan B is - I call it the Doomsday scenario and it is not pleasant," he said. "I assure you, it will be very bad."

The backup plan calls for adding even more portable trailers to school grounds, and elective courses could suffer, Nichols said.

Trailer "villages" are already in place at many schools because every school in the county is at or over capacity. Jefferson High School, for example, was designed to hold 900 students. More than 1,600 are currently enrolled, Nichols said.

Charles Town Middle School also has surpassed its designed capacity by 500 students, he said.

Although portable trailers can be added for classrooms, at a cost of around $62,000 each, Nichols said no avenue exists to expand common areas such as libraries, cafeterias and hallways.

Some naysayers include residents without children. Nichols said his response to them is: "When you had children in school, who paid the bills?"

Often they reply that their neighbors did, which is what the bond equals. Also, Nichols said, economic growth is tied to the quality of education in an area.

Since February, Nichols said he speaks an average of five nights a week, to groups that range from just a few to 500. He recently met with four men at a local diner who began the meal by telling Nichols they intended to vote against the bond.

After listening to Nichols, however, the men said they had changed their minds and planned to vote for the bond, he said.

"We're building for the future," Nichols said.

The county's three middle schools, in Charles Town, Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., were all built during the Great Depression as high schools, he said.

Despite the grim outlook then, residents wanted the schools for future generations, he said.

One person who is not convinced is Robert Hooe Jr.

Although Hooe said he understands the need for a new high school, he disagrees with asking taxpayers to fund it. He said he plans to vote against the bond.

"The county commission has all that money in the bank and they won't spend it," he said. If that money, around $8.3 million, cannot be given to the Board of Education, other taxes should be lowered to offset the school bond costs, Hooe said.

The money comes from Charles Town Races & Slots. Two percent of the track's profits are given to the county, but none comes directly to school officials, Nichols said.

Getting funding from the track for schools is an issue that would need to be tackled at the state Legislature level. Nichols said that likely would be an uphill battle since the state has come to depend upon gambling revenue.

For now, Nichols is fighting for the bond, which he said should cover the next 25 years. Impact fees, collected when new homes are built, cannot be used to address existing problems but will be used to help build new elementary schools and middle schools, he said.

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