library, books, bookshelves-1147815.jpg

Advocates say they hope to see a better option presented to voters in November while school leaders stay steadfast in support of May excess levy


In light of a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision issued earlier this month, some residents in Cabell County — upset with what they see as attempts to underfund the county’s parks and libraries — are asking voters to oppose the upcoming school excess levy and urge the school district to return funding to previous levels.

The strategy, according to those pushing for it, is meant to buy more time to negotiate and work with the Cabell County Board of Education to find a compromise that keeps libraries and parks operating at their current levels in the face of a $4.5 million budget shortfall affecting the school system.

If they’re successful, advocates like Dani Parent — who is organizing against the levy that will appear on the ballot in May’s primary — hope to see a better levy proposal in the November general election and, with more work, a long-term funding solution to keep the region’s libraries and parks operating.

“This is an emergency, it’s been an emergency and we didn’t have enough time to solve the problem or explore a better solution,” Parent said. “That’s why we’re failing the levy in May and hoping to see something better come in November. We want the time for everybody to come together and discuss solutions.”

The Cabell County excess levy, as currently proposed, totals about $30.5 million for the school district over the next five years and will be on the ballot for the May 14 primary. Of that $30.5 million, nearly $1.6 million — about 4.5% of the total levy amount — will go to the Cabell County Public Library ($1.4 million) and the Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District ($200,000).

It also includes about $540,000 for school safety improvements, $17 million for salaries and benefits, $2 million for supplies and textbooks including for school libraries and other budget lines for athletics, digital services, summer learning programs and more. If voted down, none of those initiatives would receive the funding.

The proposed levy is an increase from the one initially approved by the school board in August, which would have zeroed out funding for the parks district and cut library allocations down to $195,000 compared to the $1.7 million the library system received under the levy previously approved by voters.

“I think that’s one thing that’s gotten lost here. People are saying we’re ‘defunding’ our libraries, ‘defunding’ our parks. We’re not doing that — this is pretty substantial funding,” said Cabell County Schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe. “The reality is we, like everyone, are working with finite resources.”

Saxe said he understands that advocates and community members are frustrated, but he said he “wouldn’t be betting” on the guarantee that a different proposal would come in November if the May levy is voted down.

The most recent levy proposal came after days of negotiations between the school district and leaders with the Cabell County Public Library and the Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District following the release of a decision from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. That decision overturned a lower court’s ruling stating that the school district must keep funding the libraries and parks at levels previously decided by voters through the excess levy.

In the court’s released opinion, justices said that special acts by the Legislature — which are laws passed that don’t necessarily appear in state code and apply only to specific areas or communities — that allowed Cabell County to divert a certain portion of its funds to the libraries and parks through the excess levy are not actually distinguishable from a general levy. This means that while the school district has the option to include the parks and libraries in its levy proposals for funding, it’s under no obligation to continue diverting those funds.

The court’s decision hinged on the argument that requiring Cabell County schools to fund parks and libraries — a result of a special act by the legislature — was a violation of the state’s equal protection clause, as not every county or school district has the same stipulations

“The special acts require that money be allocated to the [Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District] and the [Cabell County Public Library] means that they don’t have the same opportunity that other counties do to use all their levy funds for educational purposes,” said Marc Williams, an attorney who represented the parks and libraries in the court case. “If the Legislature passed a law saying every county with an excess levy must put some toward libraries, this might be a different decision. But every county doesn’t have an excess levy and the amount of money for those levies varies, so that’s the situation we’re in now.”

Parent, who spent years working both in the Cabell County libraries and as a teacher in Cabell County schools, said the decision was disappointing. She understands firsthand the strain that comes with an ever tightening budget, but doesn’t believe any solution should involve taking money out of the parks and libraries.

“We [the school board and the parks and libraries] have an inherent misunderstanding here,” Parent said. “It’s not like we want to take money out of the schools, we absolutely don’t. We just don’t think the school board should be taking money out of the parks and libraries without conversation, collaboration and efforts to mitigate these effects together as a community.”

But if that money didn’t come from the parks or libraries, Saxe said, it would have had to come out of the school’s budget somewhere else.

“If we give them more money, we have to take away from our line items,” Saxe said. “We don’t want to reduce our staffing, we don’t want to reduce our programming. The libraries and the parks provide excellent services to our community, but in order for those entities to thrive should not be contingent upon significant funding from the school district.”

Saxe said the school district’s recent budget challenges come from a combination of factors: a decline in student enrollment which impacts the amount of money the school receives from the state as well as the end of one-time COVID-19 relief dollars that allowed the district to hire different staff, including counselors and educational interventionists to support children.

Now that the COVID relief dollars are gone, Saxe said, the school district needs to cover those costs within its existing budget if it wants to keep them employed. It’s a difficult situation to be in, Saxe said, but he said he believes that voting down the May levy is not the answer.

“A vote to approve the excess levy in May is a win for everybody, but mostly it’s a win for our students. Without it, the students are who are going to suffer the most,” Saxe said. “A yes vote on this levy ensures continuity, sustainability and ensures that we are giving our students all the resources they need to succeed.”

Like Parent, Saxe said he wants to see a long-term solution to help the region’s libraries and parks stay afloat. He said he would support legislation from state lawmakers to allow library systems to introduce their own levies for taxpayers to vote on.

Parent said community members are also interested in that idea, and are in very preliminary stages to explore what kind of work would be needed to do so.

In the meantime, however, Parent said the move to vote down May’s excess levy is a “stopgap measure” to allow more conversations and planning for immediate needs. Her son attends Cabell County schools and, as a former educator, she said she’s “terrified” to vote down an educational levy she knows is needed to keep students successful and schools functioning.

If they’re successful, she understands the organizing and work that will need to be done between May and November to ensure a more palatable levy proposal is adopted.

“It’s going to take twice as much work to vote yes after telling people to vote no, but we need to buy more time to get a solution. We understand that we are responsible for canvassing our communities to ensure the second levy passes,” Parent said. “A huge part of this for us is also oversight. We need [the school board] to remember that they work for us and we’re watching, we will be holding them accountable.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *