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Proposed excess levy divides school board

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pete Thaw, president of the Kanawha County school board, is mounting a campaign against a proposed property tax to benefit the school system he oversees, while the rest of the school system works to convince voters of the benefits of that tax.

Thaw voted against pursuing the new tax, an excess levy in addition to the school system's already-approved regular and excess levies, and has publicly railed against the idea since it was proposed early this year.

He was also the most vocal advocate for the board's decision last year to put a flat cap on the amount of money the school system can receive from its property tax. By law, the system can ask voters to approve an excess levy that will collect as much in taxes as its regular levy does — instead, the school system's next excess levy, which was approved by voters last year and will go into effect July 1, 2014, is capped at a flat rate.

The board made that move in the name of tax relief for the public, but now they're returning to voters, asking them to uncap the levy. On Nov. 9 voters will be able to weigh in on a proposed second excess levy that would generate $24.4 million the first year it took effect, in fiscal year 2014-15.

The school board approved that levy proposal 4-1, with Thaw dissenting. Now, he's working to educate voters on the details of the tax, in the hopes they'll be persuaded to vote against it.

"I'm trying not to strip everybody of their money," Thaw said. "I lobbied for the capped levy because it gives people control over their money, they get to say no to more and more taxes. It's out of control and so is the spending by the department."

Thaw's campaign is largely personal — he's paid to have brochures outlining the details of the levy printed with his own money, and is making the rounds to senior citizens events to talk to them about the election.

He believes that if the public understands how much the new excess levy will cost, the vast majority will not be in favor of it.

 For a person with a $100,000 home and $15,000 in vehicles, the tax increase amounts to about $125 annually. That's 25 percent more than they would pay to the school system otherwise, with its regular and excess levies. It's a 50 percent increase over the current excess levy.

The other four school board members support the proposed tax, and are working with the school system to campaign in its favor. They cite department figures predicting a $4.5 million deficit in the school system by the 2014 -15 fiscal year.

"It's a reality check," said board member Robin Rector. "We've got to find the money somewhere . . . or I don't know how to avoid making cuts that impact students."

Thaw argues that cuts can be made that won't negatively affect the county's schoolchildren — a notion that is roundly resisted by his fellow board members and administrators in the school system.

"If money could improve the education system we would be number one in the country," Thaw said. "We're not and it is not. Money doesn't solve anything; money just inflates bureaucracy and brings about no improvement in education for the children."

If the levy fails, Bill Raglin sees Kanawha County following suit after cash-strapped school systems across the country that have begun asking students to pay for extracurricular activities.

"We'll have to make cuts in some areas, and we'll obviously start in areas that are not in the classroom," he said. "But these things are important to students."

The school system's levy request also includes a sizable allocation for technology improvements, adult education and improvements to the county's vocational education facilities.

There's also the county's library system, which would collect 5 percent of the tax — a compromise agreed upon by the two public entities after the state Supreme Court ruled that the law forcing the school system to fund the public library was unconstitutional, leaving the library in financial straits.

If approved, the new levy would raise $3 million for the library in the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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