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Berkeley Co. voters to decide bond issue Saturday

September 19, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- A new high school in northern Berkeley County not only would ease overcrowding at Hedgesville (W.Va.) and Martinsburg high schools, but would eliminate 30 to 40 minutes of travel time for 400 to 500 middle-school students, Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny P. Arvon II said.

At Spring Mills (W.Va.) Middle School, some students wait 15 to 20 minutes for classes to begin and about the same amount of time to go home at the end of the day because they have to ride the same buses with students who attend Hedgesville High School, Arvon said.

Martinsburg High School has about 1,800 students and Hedgesville's enrollment has increased to about 1,700, Arvon said.

Construction of a fourth high school in the county and three other projects, however, hinges on whether voters approve a $51.5 million taxpayer-financed school construction proposal.

The ballot question being asked by the Berkeley County Board of Education is expected to be decided Saturday in a special election. Polls open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m.

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Residents have until Wednesday to vote early at the voter registration office at 110 W. King St. in Martinsburg. Ballots can be cast there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As of Friday at 5 p.m., 1,473 ballots had been cast, according to Berkeley County Clerk John W. Small Jr.'s office.

If voters authorize the $51.5 million bond issue, owners of homes 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 have said.

About 77 percent of taxable parcels in Berkeley County have an appraised value of $200,000 or less, according to state tax department figures provided Friday by Berkeley County Assessor Patricia "Patsy" Kilmer. The remaining 23 percent have a higher appraised value, she said.

Taxpayers are being asked to shoulder a little more than half of the estimated $96.5 million in construction and renovation costs for four schools, including the new high school.

If voters authorize the bond issue, the school district will receive $25 million from the West Virginia School Building Authority (SBA) for the new high school, which would be built in Spring Mills.

Another $20 million in SBA grants for three more school projects in the bond issue proposal are expected, but not guaranteed, Arvon said.

Those projects are a new middle school on district-owned land near Gerrardstown, W.Va., a major addition at Musselman High School in Inwood, W.Va., and a major renovation and expansion at Martinsburg North Middle School.

The additional space would help offset increasing school enrollment, which has grown by 4,138 students from 2001 to 2008. Arvon said 125 portable classrooms are in place at schools to accommodate overflow student capacity and more than 3,000 students have classes daily in those buildings.

The school district's enrollment is expected to grow by 350 to 400 students this year, up from 17,214 in fall 2008, Arvon said.

Given the economic pressure being faced by the community, Arvon said he will not take offense to voters who vote against the bond issue.

"I respect and understand the decisions they have to make," Arvon said. "It's as simple as that. This isn't personal."

Of the 5,555 ballots tallied in the previous school construction bond election in September 2001, 63.2 percent (3,514) were cast in favor of the bond issue, according to county election records.

While having past success in September, Arvon said the school board only decided to hold the election now because the $25 million SBA grant for the high school is contingent upon the bond issue being approved by Nov. 1.

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