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Sept. vote set on bond for new Berkeley Co. high school

July 21, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- One of the strings attached to $25 million that the state awarded to Berkeley County Schools in April for a new high school requires county residents to commit to paying a portion of the estimated $53.5 million project by Nov. 1, Superintendent Manny P. Arvon II said Monday.

Berkeley County taxpayers in a special election on Sept. 26 will be asked to shoulder a little more than half of an estimated $96.5 million in construction and renovation costs for four schools through a bond issue.

While admitting the timing of the election is not good given the depressed economy, Arvon said he believes the state's offer is a good deal.

"My job is to bring the best deal to the public," Arvon said in an interview after presenting a PowerPoint about the proposed bond issue to school board members Monday evening.

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If voters authorize the Berkeley County Board of Education to issue $51.5 million in bonds, the owner of a home with an appraised value of $200,000 would see a net increase of $69.35 on their residential (Class II) property tax bills in 2010, school officials announced Wednesday.

In addition to the $25 million West Virginia School Building Authority (SBA) grant for the new Spring Mills Area High School, Arvon expects the SBA to award another $20 million in SBA money for the other three capital improvement projects if voters approve the bond issue, Arvon said.

If the bond is rejected, Arvon said Monday that the $25 million for the high school would go to other school districts in the state.

The other three projects being eyed are Mountain Ridge Area Middle School near Gerrardstown, W.Va., ($20 million); a major addition at Musselman High School in Inwood, W.Va., ($7 million); and a major renovation and expansion at Martinsburg North Middle School ($16 million).

The high school project would be the first constructed, possibly beginning in the spring of 2010.

Arvon readily admitted that the special election, beginning with early voting on Sept. 4, comes at a difficult time for many people struggling in a depressed economy.

He also cited the economic benefit of the projects for local contractors, and cost savings for the school district given the expectation of competitive bidding by companies looking for work.

In his presentation, Arvon also said school enrollment had grown by 4,138 students from 2001 to 2008 and at least 115 portable classrooms are now in place at schools to accommodate overflow student capacity.

The increase alone is larger than total enrollment of 30 of the state's 55 school districts, Arvon said. By next fall, school officials anticipate completing 24 capital improvement projects, including two land purchases, Arvon said.

Because of the county's growing tax base, the individual taxpayer's burden for school construction bond issues approved by voters in 1995 and 2001 has continued to decrease, school officials noted Monday.

In the first year that the 1995 bond issue was applied to tax bills, the owners of a home that had an appraised value of $200,000 were billed $110.16 to pay off $16 million in bonds issued.

The amount billed for the 1995 bond issue has since dropped to $17.52 this year and it will be paid in full before the new bond issue would be applied to tax bills, school officials have said.

Using the same appraisal information, the amount initially billed for the $27.8 million bond issue in 2001 was $123.84 and has since decreased to $22.56, according to James Welton, the school board's financial consultant.

None of the bond money, if authorized in September, would be used for land purchases because school officials already own the property for the new high school and middle school, Arvon said.

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