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Berkeley Co. taxpayers to be asked to fund school building projects

June 20, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manuel P. "Manny" Arvon II said Friday he plans to ask taxpayers in the next two to four weeks to help finance the construction of a new high school and other growth-related building projects.

School board members were presented with a draft of a proposed bond financing plan and a final vote still is needed to move forward, Arvon said.

While the school board delayed asking voters to shoulder the additional tax burden when the economy began taking a nose dive, Arvon said school district leaders also have recognized the longer they wait, the higher construction costs will be.

"We feel that we can't postpone this decision any longer because students are still showing up and our schools are so large with both Hedgesville and Martinsburg (high schools) over 1,800 (students) ..." Arvon said.

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Musselman High School, which opened in 1998 with less than 900 students, now is approaching 1,600 students and Musselman Middle School is the 10th largest school in the state with more than 1,300 students, Arvon said.

The School Building Authority of West Virginia (SBA) earlier this year approved the allocation of $25 million to help pay for the construction of a fourth high school in Berkeley County if voters approve the proposed financing plan, Arvon said. The high school is projected to cost $53 million.

"In the past, I've always been able to say, 'Expect (SBA money), but not guaranteed," said Arvon, whose contract was renewed for another year this month. "But the SBA has already approved $25 million, which is essential when you take this before the public."

In addition to the high school, bonds also would help pay for a new middle school, the addition of 15 to 20 classrooms at Musselman High School and a major renovation and addition at Martinsburg North Middle School if voters approve the financing plan.

"The message we wanted to send to our public (in 1995 and now is), "Entrust us with your tax dollars by passing bonds and levies and ... we will do the best that we can possibly do with those tax dollars and put those dollars to maximum use and when we finish, we will have a product that you will be very proud of and a product that will be here for years to come," Arvon said.

Bond financing approved in 1995, when Arvon was an assistant superintendent, helped the school district build a new Musselman High School, construct Potomack Intermediate School, provide a new home for Musselman Middle School and complete two major additions at Hedgesville high and middle schools for about $34 million, Arvon said.

"I think what we were able to show the public was you trusted us, we took your tax dollars and we did what we told you we were going to do," he said of his first experience with financing for school construction.

While the proposed financing plan will determine future construction plans, Arvon said the state's first "green" school, Spring Mills Primary School, could be ready to open for the 2010-11 school year.

"A lot depends on how the bids and everything goes ... that's going to be a very aggressive timeline, but that's what we hope to achieve," he said.

Arvon expects to see another increase in student enrollment for the coming year, possibly a gain of 200 to 300 students.

Two years ago, enrollment jumped by 700, but last year's increase was about half that amount, Arvon said.

"Who knows," Arvon said. "No one knows what to really expect."

In his tenure as superintendent, overall enrollment has increased from about 12,000 to more than 17,000 students.

Beginning July 1, Arvon said he will be paid $139,875 to run what is now the state's second largest school district, an increase from about $130,000. The 57-year-old educator was named superintendent in February 1997 after working for 23 years in the school system as a teacher, principal and assistant superintendent for instruction.

"The greatest thing being superintendent in Berkeley County has been an excellent school board," Arvon said. "They expect me to do my job. They have never tried to micromanage and they always want to do what's right.

"The second thing I have going for me is my assistants, superintendents and directors and central office personnel -- it's a total team effort, everyone who works with us realizes that ... It's fun to go to work."

While voters have supported school construction bonds, Arvon said some of the biggest challenges he has faced in his tenure still remain.

"No. 1 is providing our students with the very best educator possible," Arvon said of continued competition with public school districts in Virginia and Maryland that pay teachers more.

By 2012, Arvon said the school district needs to implement programs on campus for 4-year-olds, which is a challenge when instructional space already is at a premium.

"We have approximately another 1,000 students minimum that we're not serving that we possibly could, if we had the facilities ..." he said.

In the last 10 years, the school district has built 975,000 square feet of instructional space, Arvon said.

Yet, that still hasn't kept up with the demand for classroom space and there currently are 115 modular trailers or "instructional cottages" outside of campus buildings across the district, Arvon said.

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