Adjustments made to school levy

NEW CUMBERLAND – Every five years, administrators with Hancock County Schools sit down and decide how they are going to use the excess levy that voters have been passing since 1949.

The excess levy, which is up for renewal again on Nov. 9, represents about 16 percent of the school district’s total budget and pays for many of the extras that Hancock County residents have come to expect of their schools.

“This is a very important part of the educational system,” Superintendent Suzan Smith said. “This levy helps with all the things that the state does not pay for. There are a lot of programs that we wouldn’t have without it.”

While the levy, if passed, will continue to pay for things such as technology upgrades, building repairs, computer software and autism programs, district officials are anticipating a significant reallocation of funds in at least one category: security improvements.

Specifically, they want to expand the Prevention Resource Officer program by hiring officers for the district’s three elementary schools – Allison Elementary in Chester, New Manchester Elementary and Weirton Elementary, currently under construction. The latter, scheduled to be completed in time for the 2014-2015 school year, will unite Broadview, Liberty and Weirton Heights elementary schools under one roof.

“In light of what has happened on a national level, we feel it is important to establish PRO officers in the elementary schools,” Smith said. “The need for safety and security in the schools has never been more paramount.”

The school district already has PRO officers in the two middle schools and the two high schools, but the program is getting increasingly difficult to fund as state assistance continues to dwindle. By making the PRO program part of the levy, the district would ensure funding for the elementary school officers through 2019.

Smith wants to increase the levy’s security allocation from $128,000 to $380,000, an amount that would also cover security technology improvements.

The excess levy generates $7.1 million annually toward the district’s $43 million budget. While that amount will stay roughly the same for the next five years, district officials want to reallocate funds for the levy’s 14 line items. Such a reallocation reflects both changing needs within the district and changing priorities at the state level, officials said.

In addition to increasing funding for security, district officials are looking at a substantial increase for roof replacements at Oak Glen High School, Weir High School, Weir Middle School and the John D. Rockefeller IV Career Center, Smith said. Because of the size of the buildings, the roof work will have to be done in sections.

“You have to constantly upgrade,” she said. “We want to make sure we take good care of those buildings.”

The school district plans to more than double the allocation for roofing, heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) improvements – from $157,139 to $349,814, Smith said. That dollar figure must be sufficient to cover the rising cost of materials and the prevailing wage, she said.

At the same time, the district is reducing the five-year levy allocation for capital improvements from $700,000 to $500,000, Smith said. That’s because the $37 million bond levy approved by Hancock County voters in 2010 has addressed a multitude of capital improvements, including extensive renovations to Allison and New Manchester Elementary schools, HVAC improvements at the Career Center, new science labs at Oak Glen and Weir High schools, a new wrestling room at Oak Glen Middle School, and new multi-sports complexes at the high schools, she said.

“With the bond call, we have done a lot,” Smith said. “We are anticipating we won’t need to do as much (capital improvement) with the new schools.”

Hancock County Schools passed the bond levy and, consequently, received a $19 million match from the state School Building Authority. The bulk of the $56 million is going toward the construction of Weirton Elementary.

School Board President Jerry Durante commended voters for their passage of a bond levy during an economic downturn and for their continued support of the excess levy.

“There’s so much at stake here. This county has never turned down the excess levy,” he said.

Durante said Hancock County does not have the tax base it used to enjoy when Weirton Steel and other industries were flourishing.

“But the needs are still there. That has not changed,” he said.

Another residual effect of the bond call on the excess levy is the reduction by $100,000 of the allocation for outdoor athletic fields, grounds and indoor gymnasiums. Because of certain bond levy improvements, that line item is being reduced from $250,000 to $150,000.

With the exception of autism programs and professional support services for child abuse and child neglect cases, all other levy categories will receive an increase. The autism program is being reduced from $115,000 to $100,000, and professional support is being reduced from 75,000 to $60,000, Smith said.

The latter covers the salary for the school counselor who investigates child abuse and neglect cases district-wide.

“It’s a much-needed position,” Smith said.

Targeted for increases are the following levy categories:

West Virginia University Extension Service programs, including the Energy Express remedial summer program, from $33,000 to $40,000.

Legal/medical service, from $60,000 to $80,000. The line item covers such things as legal expenses stemming from labor-related grievances, litigation, etc.

Homebound, occupational therapy, physical therapy and psychological services, from $115,000 to $130,000. The district wants to increase its hourly rate for teachers who work with homebound students after the school day.

“It has been the same for many years,” Smith said.

Visually- and hearing-impaired services through the Regional Education Service Agency 6, from $100,000 to $160,000. Created by the West Virginia Legislature in 2002, RESAs allow county school districts to share staff, technology and other resources.

“Some of these shared services should be expanded,” Durante said.

More than 28 special education teachers and aides are employed through RESA-6, which includes Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties and is based in Wheeling.

Levy allocations for instructional material ($100,000) and technology ($160,000) will stay the same, Smith said. The latter is intended to improve student access to technology through the purchase of hardware, infrastructure, repairs, training and support, she said.

Instructional materials include supplemental books, workbooks, computer software, library materials and classroom furniture, Smith said.

Because the levy covers five years – from 2014 to 2019 – planning requires looking at past levy uses and predicting what the future needs will be, Smith said.

(Huba can be contacted at