HARRISVILLE, W.Va. — Officials in Ritchie County are feeling disappointed after the proposed $9.9 million school bond failed to pass Saturday, leaving the Board of Education questioning how to make up gaps in funding.
The unofficial numbers were 981 against and 778 in favor of its passing.
“What a missed opportunity to significantly help the current and future students and staff members of Ritchie County Schools,” Ritchie County Schools Superintendent Rick Coffman said.
“I’ve been in this business 38 years. Never have I been so stunned, surprised or seen people turn down a complete fix for very, very little money,” Coffman said. “It’s kind of scary. Basically facilities were put ahead of the needs of the students.”
Coffman said the failure of the school bond forces the continued maintenance and operation of too many old school facilities.
“Unfortunately these enormous costs will force more personnel cuts and the loss of more important educational programs for the students,” Coffman said. “In the end, it’s the students of Ritchie County that will be the ones who continue to suffer.”
The $9.9 million would have allowed the school district to move forward with plans to consolidate the county’s three oldest elementary schools into one new facility.
Coffman said the proposed property, which sits adjacent to the existing Ellenboro Elementary School, was donated to the school system and was already core-drilled.
The school bond also would’ve allowed for various improvements at Ritchie County High School and Middle School, including the addition of safe school entrances, moving the student wellness center to the rear of the school to account for safety and increasing efficiency by replacing all florescent lights with LED lighting.
“For all of that, all it was going to cost the taxpayers was $9.9 million over 15 and a half years,” Coffman said. “It would’ve actually cost a taxpayer with a $100,000 appraisal $4.75/month or about $57/year. That’s all it would’ve cost, and the entire educational system would’ve been fixed for the next 40 or 50 years.”
Instead, Ritchie County Schools now has to consider possible cuts to account for gaps in financing. The Board of Education met Monday, and during an executive session discussed a list of 23 items that will be considered for those cuts.
“Some of the things that are being contemplated are closing one or two of the elementary schools, maybe moving the fifth grade students to the middle school, eliminating activity buses, eliminating student field trips, eliminating after-school tutoring, eliminating summer feeding for the band and athletics, restricting employee travel and employee professional benefit,” Coffman said.
“I mean, I could go on and on, but the bottom line is, it’s all bad,” he said. “So what these people that voted no were thinking, I don’t have a clue.”
Secondary school students have already suffered from cuts, such as a halftime music teacher between the middle and high school.
“Because they’ve had to make cuts every year in order to keep these four elementary schools open, at the high school, we’ve lost 30 course offerings in the last nine years,” Coffman said.
“We all like small elementary schools. Most of us are products of small elementary schools,” he added. “We just can’t afford to keep so many old ones open. That’s the issue.”
Coffman said it’s “very unfortunate” that the high school is the first to receive cuts, but that cuts are more challenging at the elementary school level.
Last year, one Ritchie County elementary school had only nine Pre-K students and 11 Kindergarten students, with both classrooms requiring a full-time aide in addition to a full-time teacher.
“So for 20 students, we were paying two teachers and two aides,” Coffman said. “That’s over $200,000 in salary to educate 20 kids. You would have to be insane to say its acceptable to keep doing that.”
The failed school bond isn’t the only financial struggle that Ritchie County is facing. Coffman said there are three factors working against the school district.
“One, we lost 50 students last year, which means this year we received $300,000 less from the state department,” he said. “Second, our tax collections were down $600,000, and we have no control over that either.
Ritchie County also has one of the lowest excess levy bonds in the state.
“In Ritchie County, the excess levy, which also is a big funding source from taxes, is only 65 percent,” Coffman said. “There’s only seven counties out of 55 that have lower educational taxes than Ritchie. Only 65 percent, which nowadays is not enough to operate a school system.”
Additionally, $1 million is spent each year on maintenance and operation costs of the county’s three oldest elementary schools.
“If we keep going like we are with no changes, in less than two years we’ll be in deficit. With all of that, they still voted no,” Coffman said.
The school bond could be on a future ballot, but Coffman said it would cost between $30,000 and $40,000 to put it back up to vote.
“I’m not going to rule it out, but 203 votes is a pretty big gap,” he said. “Since we’re already in the situation we’re in, knowing how the people feel, basically not putting the education of the kids as a priority, is that really in the best interest?”
If Coffman does decide to bring the school bond back for a second go, he hopes that the county has the best interest of the school students in mind.
“It’s just unfortunate that the students are the ones who are going to continue to suffer throughout all of this stuff,” he said. “It would’ve cost so little, and it would’ve done so much educationally and facility wise, and academically, for our students.”