KINGWOOD, W.Va. — It was nearly one decade ago that the Preston County Board of Education lost local control of the school system due to growing financial issues.
Things began looking up when control was returned to the board in 2014. But since regaining local control, voters have repeatedly failed to pass a levy — leading to a new set of financial concerns in Preston County.
“We are the largest county, I think, in the state of West Virginia who’s trying to operate without an excess levy,” Superintendent Steve Wotring said.
Most recently, the Board of Education placed a levy on the May primary ballot. That margin of defeat came down to fewer than 100 votes out of more than 7,500 cast — a significant improvement from their previous attempt.
“We were really, really close in that gain,” Wotring said. “But one vote shy of a majority is a loss.”
The rejected levy, a five-year, $2.42 million proposal, would have provided for overall school building maintenance, upgrading cameras and key-less entries for improved security, technology spending, instructional supplies, field trips, after school and summer programs, alternative education, community use of facilities, and free access to all events within school buildings for students and senior citizens.
“We are continued facing running our system without an excess levy, and, at the same time, trying to provide every opportunity that our kids need,” Wotring said. “At this juncture, our backs are just against the wall.”
One of the areas of need Wotring cited as impacted by the levy’s failure, in particular, was technology spending — an important facet in the rural and often snow-filled mountains of Preston County.
“It’ll take us four years to get everybody (grades) 5 through 12 a computer,” he said. “Then they’ll have them, but because I don’t have an excess levy I can only afford to do one year at a time.”
Wotring said tech spending comes in handy when facing harsh winters, noting that Preston County used all five of their at-home instructional “brain freeze” days last academic year.
The weather also drives up another area of spending, Wotring said.
“Our electricity bills, for example, are skyrocketing because we are heating and cooling year-round where we used to not do that,” he said. “We have no more money than we ever did to pay those bills.”
What exactly led to this? While it’s true that Preston County’s population has incurred steep declines throughout its history, the 2010 census indicated more than 14 percent population growth in the county. Population estimates through 2016 indicate growth has slowed significantly, but population increases have still occurred.
“Our population is shifting in our county to different areas,” Wotring said. “The west Preston school area, which covers Masontown, Arthurdale, those areas — that place is exploding and our population continues to skyrocket there. Also in the Bruceton area, that population continues to grow considerably.”
“But the other areas in the county are experiencing declines in enrollment.”
Perhaps no school better exemplifies this than Fellowsville Elementary School, home to just 73 students this school year. Drilling even deeper, there were just five students in the entirety of second grade at Rowlesburg Elementary School last year.
“I couldn’t have any more split classrooms, so you have to hire a full-time teacher for those five kids,” Wotring said. “Then you have other schools sitting there with 25 and 28 kids in the classroom. It’s just not becoming cost efficient to keep the level of instruction we need across the county with the variance in our attendance.”
This has prompted Wotring to begin exploring a series of informal community meetings focused on a potentially difficult topic: closure and consolidation.
Those meetings have not yet been scheduled, but Wotring anticipates releasing the dates soon. All are expected to occur in September.