KINGWOOD, W.Va. — At this point, it probably feels a little like 1993’s comedy classic Groundhog Day.
Once again, voters will face the choice of a school excess levy, deciding whether or not Preston County should join 44 other counties in the state that currently have voter-approved levies.
And, this time, they’ll actually vote on Groundhog Day. The difference, though, is that the stakes of the election offer nothing worth laughing about in two Preston County communities.
It’s an uphill battle — at least from a historical perspective — for a school system that hasn’t passed a successful levy in more than eight years — but the fate of Rowlesburg Elementary School and Fellowsville Elementary School hinge on the successful passage of an excess levy in a county that has a penchant for saying ‘no.’
According to previous reporting by The Dominion Post, Preston County voters have rejected levies in 2018, 2016, 2012, 2004, 1995, 1994, and 1993.
In the absence of that funding, Preston County Superintendent Steve Wotring said they have been forced to prioritize funding, cut where they can, and make some very difficult choices.
“We lost 105 students in enrollment across this county last year, which equates to about half a million dollars in funding that we’re going to lose next year,” Wotring said Tuesday on WAJR’s “Talk of the Town” with Dave Wilson and Sarah Giosi.
After the narrow failure of the levy vote last year, the Preston County Board of Education began making preparations for the closure of Rowlesburg and Fellowsville Elementary Schools through a series of public hearings and informal meetings.
“The only two schools that gained any enrollment this year were Aurora and Preston High School,” Wotring said. “And that was just by very few numbers. Every other school in our county lost enrollment.”
Residents of those areas were incensed. They turned up in large numbers at the hearings, eventually crowding a crucial Preston County Board of Education meeting to ask the BOE to take a different approach to their budgetary concerns. In the end, the popular opinion in those towns won the day — at least for now — and a new levy was placed on the ballot after the State BOE granted Preston County a special waiver to proceed late in 2018.
“Because we do not have an excess levy, we are one of 11 counties in the state of West Virginia and one of the largest, trying to operate without an excess levy,” Wotring said. “You prioritize every single dime, and so you wind up piecemealing our older projects little by little. And that means you ignore the newer projects because there is just simply not enough funding to go around.”
This marks the third levy voters will face in just 25 months. And, while a successful passage could save those two elementary schools, the terms of the levy offer county-wide benefits across the school system. Most pressing, Wotring said, is the HVAC system at Preston High School — currently outliving its life expectancy.
“There are older sections of the schools, for example, in August and September when it is 95 degrees in classrooms — we have no air conditioning at all in those areas of those buildings,” Wotring said.
The Preston County Chamber of Commerce endorsed the five-year, $4.5 million levy earlier this month.
Early voting is underway. Election day is Saturday, Feb. 2.