KINGWOOD, W.Va. — The 11th hour victory for education advocates in Preston County, including Superintendent Steve Wotring, means an additional commitment to responsibility and transparency.
That’s how Wotring, who described a history of mistrust among county residents and the Board of Education, views it following the narrow passage of the five-year, $4.5 million school excess levy last weekend.
“I have a responsibility to live up to my word and make sure that I am as transparent as possible and that I can document and show where every dime has been spent and prove that it has been spent exactly where we promised the people it would be,” Wotring said Wednesday on WAJR’s “Talk of the Town” with Dave Wilson and Sarah Giosi.
Passing 3,073 votes to 2,731 against, 52.9 percent of voters finally gave Preston County residents a school excess levy after failed votes in 2016 and 2018.
“We had an awesome committee of people that worked with us,” Wotring said. “Volunteers who spent endless hours of time. When I say a committee of people, I’m talking like 50 people who met regularly, who went out and pounded the pavement to get the word out.”
He added: “It was just an amazing group of individuals — both school personnel and community personnel.”
The levy was pushed hard by residents of Rowlesburg and Fellowsville, incensed that a declining student population and corresponding declining tax dollars could result in the permanent closure of their elementary schools.
Informal meetings were held last Fall so Board of Education members could hear from residents across the county without ever having enough members present to have a quorum.
More than half of the levy, $2.7 million, is dedicated to general maintenance ($2 million) and operating expenses ($700,000).
“We’ve got a lot of things that we need to do,” Wotring said. “I’ve talked before about HVAC concerns in many of our schools. That has got to be really at the top of our priority list.”
Unfortunately, projects — regardless of size and scope — won’t occur overnight, Wotring cautioned.
“Just because the levy passed on Saturday doesn’t mean we have immediate access to those funds,” he said. “Those taxes really won’t be assessed until this coming Fall when people get their tax bills here in July and August and then when they pay their taxes for the next year. Then that’s when that money will start coming in.”
Still, Wotring knows that the reinforcements — direly needed — are on the way. Before Saturday, Preston County was one of just 11 counties in West Virginia operating without a levy.
Between the lack of a levy and the expiration of a federal grant focused on afterschool programs, Wotring said there was a lot more hanging on the outcome.
“We want to be able to just make that a continuation,” he said. “That’ll jump to the top of our list, because we have hundreds of children who rely on our afterschool programs. So, we want to keep that moving if at all possible.”
Wotring praised the positivity of volunteers and advocates of the levy during the process, noting their hard work led to the first successful levy vote since 2010 in a county that has rejected a levy more times since 1992 than supported.
“The difference this time is that everything we put out was just really positive,” he said. “We just focused on our success. We focused on what we were able to do and have been able to do with the school system and then what we could do moving forward with the support of the community.”