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Recollections from inside local schools

"Why would the Daily Mail support this tax increase?" the caller asked.

He had called me, the relatively new editorial page editor, following a lengthy editorial supporting the Kanawha County school and library excess levy, on the ballot Nov. 9.

True, the levy proposal, if affirmed by voters, will be a tax increase. A family with a home appraised at $100,000 and a $15,000 car would see an increase of about $125 a year.

As Daily Mail readers know, this newspaper's editorial stance is generally not one to support new or higher taxes. And rest assured, that stance is not going to change. The Daily Mail will continue to push for lower taxes overall and more government efficiency.

Support by the Daily Mail editorial board for this tax increase was not one taken lightly.

I told the caller we tried to explain our reasoning in the editorial, such as:

* capping the previous levy rate prevented growth in revenues during the five-year period,

* the school system experienced several unexpected hits to its budget after the previous levy was put to voters,

* the library system will lose 40 percent of its funding without this levy.

It's easy to find reasons to oppose something proposed by the Board of Education. We've all seen public problems and embarrassing micromanagement by board members.

I too have some reservations about what seemed to be a lack of public input in the new proposal and coming back to voters just a little more than one year after a previous vote.

But voting against the levy won't change things for the better and I'm afraid will negatively affect students, teachers and libraries.

While I don't like to pay taxes any more than the next guy, I have been inside Kanawha County schools enough to know that teachers, school administrators and students need more support from the public, not less.

As part of a previous employer's school partnership, I spent several years as a school volunteer on Charleston's West Side.

I regularly enjoyed breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria with fourth graders, read to second grade classes, tutored struggling students and hosted fifth grade graduations. Teachers, counselors and the principal all did their best at the understaffed and overcrowded school.

More recently, I became involved at the high school level as athletic boosters president.

I watched the principal oversee the school while juggling calls from angry parents, issues with troublesome students, questions from staff and commands from the county office. I've closed down a school concession stand after 10 p.m. and bid an administrator good night, knowing he got to school before 7 that morning and had been at work since.

I've watched an exceptionally dedicated staff of teachers and school staff hurdle a stream of barriers, caused as much by a federal, state and county bureaucracy as by demanding parents who are quick to complain but slow to help.

The schools I've volunteered in never seem to have enough. I've always left wishing I and others could do more.  To me, these teachers and school administrators are unsung heroes.

For education in the 21st century, it is no longer adequate to simply fund a school building with teachers, a few staff members and blackboards and chalk.

If enhanced lesson plans, better technology and improved buildings engage students further, then the additional cost is worth it.

If improvements to vocational schools correlate to graduates better prepared for jobs in the chemical, automotive and health industries and make our area more attractive to expanding companies, the higher investment will be worth it.

If new technology and better-prepared teachers challenge students' natural curiosity so well that they spur young inventors and entrepreneurs who create future job growth, then it will be worth it.

We, the citizens and taxpayers who provide the funds, can choose to support a county school system that is somewhat adequate, or we can expect more from our schools and provide better resources and better opportunities for our students.

The levy will cost me about $10 more per month in property taxes. It's a small price to pay for a better school system that provides our community's children, and our community itself, a better chance for future success.

Merritt is Daily Mail editorial page editor. He may be reached at 304 348-4802 or by email at kelly.merritt@dailymail.com. Follow him on Twitter @ekmerritt.


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