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ANNA CHENOWETH – AUGUST 10, 2023 6:00 AM [Commentary]

It’s been 17 years since I first moved to Cabell County from Kanawha County; by next year, I will have lived in Huntington longer than I lived in Charleston, the city of my birth and childhood. Huntington is now the city that I identify as my true hometown. 

So what kept me here? Like most people, I initially moved to Huntington to study at Marshall University. In the years that followed my studies, I have watched a college city bloom into a thriving town of locally owned restaurants, boutiques and evening concert series. 

But the pièce de résistance for Huntington over its larger capital city counterpart in Charleston is the gem of Cabell County — Ritter Park. A sweeping, lush park with well-maintained walking trails, famed rose gardens and a bustling community center for reunions, car shows, friends and sports — the draw of Ritter Park cannot be underestimated. But now, thanks to the Cabell County Board of Education vote last week, Ritter Park is in very real danger. The people responsible for slashing funding to the parks and the library system? Superintendent Ryan Saxe, Rhonda Smalley, Mary Neely, Alyssa Bond, Coy Miller and Joshua Pauley. 

As a childless young professional living in Cabell County, up until two weeks ago I would have been hard pressed to name a single member of the Cabell County Board of Education. To be frank, local board elections for me have always been at the behest of family and friends’ recommendations. Who worked best for you in the past? Are they still meeting expectations for your children’s education? OK, I will vote for them. 

All of that changed the moment I learned about the proposed excess levy funding cuts for the parks and libraries. Could there be a more comically villainous proposal than that of defunding the community institutions that supply resources for every resident of Cabell County — from children to the most marginalized groups — and is in no small part a huge reason why young people decide to stay in the county? 

Ahead of the board of education meeting, I researched the proposal, the levy and the board members themselves. I, along with hundreds of others in the area, went from a passing knowledge of the Cabell County Board of Education to an intimate understanding of the budget issues and board member conflicts within days of the news. That woman I was before who could not name a single member of the board of education? She’s gone. Now, along with an entire community, I can name the members with ease: Superintendent Ryan Saxe, Rhonda Smalley, Mary Neely, Alyssa Bond, Coy Miller and Joshua Pauley.

There are those who can explain the inner workings of the Cabell County Board of Education’s budgets much better than myself, although I certainly would not suggest the treasurer of the board of education. He gave a long-winded filibuster presentation during the board meeting and could not answer many questions about the budget itself in a deliberate act to freeze out the audience. 

My questions about the budget focus on a few glaring discrepancies. Why are we breaking ground on the Meadows Elementary project when it is $7 million over budget before even starting? Why is the board so intent on overspending on the project? Why was Del. Sean Hornbuckle brushed aside at the BOE meeting when he came forth with a proposal from local firm Edward Tucker to save $6 million on that very same Meadows project? Why is Meadows Elementary being built with a different firm than the Davis Creek project when the bid by that firm is so much cheaper, and why is it being built where it is despite community outcry for the watershed overload and the location? Why did Superintendent Saxe claim that the cost to break the contract for Meadows was going to be more than the $6 million saved without taking the advice of Del. Hornbuckle and every person in the auditorium to table the vote and reconsider the budget? 

Why does Superintendent Saxe, who was hired in at $155,000 salary, give himself 5% raises each year and make over $175,000 with only four years experience when his Kanawha County equivalent makes $155k with 37 years experience? 

Saxe’s bogus budget for this year just had to be bailed out by a special session

EditSign of the legislature at the state level — at what real world job does someone who is so bad at that job get rewarded with tens of thousands of more dollars each year? As a constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court excluded Cabell County from the levy ruling that the BOE keeps citing, why are taxpayers now on the hook for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs for the lawsuits between the parks, libraries and the BOE when a decision was made without proper legal channels at a vote rather than in a courtroom? The library and park funding account for 1% of the entire BOE budget, why is the BOE cutting the parks to $0 and the libraries to an arbitrary $195,000 if not to keep them from running their own levy? These are questions that can only be answered by the following people: Superintendent Ryan Saxe, Rhonda Smalley, Mary Neely, Alyssa Bond, Coy Miller and Joshua Pauley.

I will not restate the importance of the libraries and parks that have been so eloquently exalted by thousands of members of the community on social media, in other commentaries and at the board meeting itself. Instead, I will implore anyone reading this to remember that in every fictional tale of real world evil, from Dolores Umbridge in “Harry Potter” to Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” — who both share more than a passing resemblance to a few members of the board’s actions — it was the community who saved the day.

I told the board at the meeting that I represented a huge portion of the young professional community in Cabell County and I was not exaggerating. I told them that we would be watching, and we have been. Since the ruling, hundreds of my friends, family and coworkers know about the Cabell County Board of Education and the cut to libraries and parks. Facebook groups opposing the vote number in the thousands after only a week. We know to vote no on the levy next May. No libraries? No parks? No levy.

We know about the budget failures. We know who to hold accountable. We know who to campaign against, vote against, and stand against. Superintendent Ryan Saxe, Rhonda Smalley, Mary Neely, Alyssa Bond, Coy Miller and Joshua Pauley. 

** West Virginia Watch is a nonprofit media source. Articles are shared under creative commons license. Please visit https://westvirginiawatch.com/ for more independent Mountain State news coverage.

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