By: Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail
In Kanawha County, after you vote for U.S. Senate, West Virginia Supreme Court and other races, your trip down the Nov. 6 general election ballot will take you to a long list of school expenses and confusing numbers.
Welcome to the Kanawha County school system excess levy.
For the past quarter-century, Kanawha County residents have approved an excess levy that brings in less money to fund schools than the state allows — currently, $24 million less per year.
Most of the proposed increase for Kanawha’s excess levy — about $108.5 million over five years — would pay for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning improvements to 15 schools, including six of the eight high schools. For years, students in Kanawha County schools have sweltered or shivered through classes because their heating and cooling systems don’t work well, or they were sent home because those systems weren’t working at all.
Voters last renewed the school excess levy in May 2012, with the restriction that it could not generate more than $44.2 million a year. That levy expires at the end of this school year — so, if voters defeat Kanawha schools’ proposal on Nov. 6, they’ll reject the entire excess levy, not just the proposed increase.
Most of the levy supports a long list of continuing expenses, including employee salaries and benefits, textbooks, supplies, travel, maintenance, pest management, fire alarm inspections and special education residential placements. If the levy doesn’t pass, school officials would either have to cut about 20 percent of the system’s expenses or quickly hold a special election and ask voters again to pass an excess levy.
Here are answers to some important questions:
1. What is an excess levy? Isn’t there a regular levy?
A school excess levy is a property tax that raises money for schools beyond what is raised through a school system’s regular levy, the state school aid formula, federal funding or other sources, such as grants.
Every county school system has a regular levy, or property tax, set by the state. Those haven’t changed for a decade, according to the state Department of Education. Some school boards decide they want more for their students and ask voters for permission to collect an “excess” levy.
Twenty-two other counties already have school excess levies at the maximum rates the state allows, including Boone, Cabell, Fayette, Putnam and Raleigh.
The excess levy also is different from a school bond levy. That’s when voters agree to let a school board go into debt (by selling bonds) to finance building projects, and to collect taxes to pay back the debt. Kanawha County doesn’t have a school bond levy, and school officials are not proposing one.
2. Why have an excess levy when we have a regular levy?
A school excess levy is a way for voters to say, “What the state considers good enough isn’t good enough for our schools and children.”
Each county has a regular school levy to fund schools. State education officials then use the state school aid formula to send state money to counties where regular levies don’t bring in enough money to provide what the state considers an adequate education.
For years, people have debated whether school systems actually rely on their excess levies to pay for necessities to offer that adequate education. Only 13 of West Virginia’s 55 counties don’t have school excess levies.
The state school aid funding formula doesn’t account for excess levies. So, if one disappears, the formula offers no state funding to make up for the loss.
3. How much money would this excess levy provide?
The Kanawha school board is asking for $64.8 million a year, so a total of $324.2 million over five years.
That’s $20.7 million more per year than the current excess levy, with its $44.2 million annual cap, can raise.
4. What about the Kanawha library excess levy?
The Kanawha County library levy also will be on the Nov. 6 ballot. It’s projected to raise $3.1 million annually, the same amount the current library excess levy raises. That $3.1 million represents about 40 percent of the Kanawha County Public Library system’s annual budget.
Voters will see the library excess levy separately on their ballot, even though the school system technically hosts the library excess levy. Under the West Virginia Constitution, school boards have the power to levy taxes, but libraries do not.
The existing library excess levy costs $12.48 a year on a house with a market value of $100,000.
Remember earlier, when we said the school board is asking for permission to raise its excess levy to nearly the maximum allowed by law? That’s because some of the school board’s excess levy capacity is used for the library.
5. What will most of the increased revenue go to?
Both the old and new levies will pay for a long list of things, including employee salaries, dental benefits, vision benefits, staff training, instructional activities, lab equipment, distance learning, special education residential placements, art teachers, custodians, textbooks, supplies, postage, printing, insurance, travel, maintenance, bus maintenance, asbestos remediation, paving, pest management, fire alarm inspections, financial audits and data communications.
The biggest new thing under the proposed levy is $18.6 million next school year for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning improvements. That annual amount would grow to $25.8 million by the fifth year, with a five-year total of $108.5 million, compared to $4.5 million a year for HVAC under the existing levy.
Those HVAC improvements would be at: Alum Creek, Elk Center, Grandview, Kanawha City, Lakewood and Piedmont elementaries; Dunbar and Stonewall Jackson middle schools; Capital, George Washington, Riverside, St. Albans, Sissonville and South Charleston high schools; and the Carver Career Center.
The proposed levy also would generate $15.9 million over five years for roofing improvements at: Belle, Malden, Montrose, Pinch, Ruthlawn, Sharon Dawes, Pratt and Grandview elementaries; Dunbar and McKinley middle schools; Capital, Nitro and Riverside high schools; and the Carver Career Center.
The proposed excess levy also would provide $12.9 million over five years to install athletic turf at every high school but Capital and $1.2 million total over five years for safety and security improvements, including camera upgrades and teacher panic-alert systems at unspecified schools.
6. Will my taxes go up if the excess levy passes?
Almost certainly. Even if the ballot measure is approved, Kanawha school board members still have to vote to set the excess levy rate each year, within the limits voters set every five years.
7. So, how much would my taxes go up?
At most, a Kanawha homeowner would pay an additional $8.39 a year for every $10,000 in market value of the home. Vehicle owners would pay, at most, an extra $1.68 for every $1,000 in market value of the vehicle.
So, if your house has a $100,000 market value, you’d pay $83.90 more on it next year than you did this year. A house valued at $50,000 would see a tax increase of just over $40. The driver of a $20,000 car would pay an extra $33.60 a year. And, again, those numbers are only if Kanawha school board members choose to raise levy rates as high as they can.