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Voter apathy on levies lowers accountability

So-called “excess levies” for public schools can serve as small red ribbons tied around the fingers of education officials. That is, they can remind them that voters are watching, and if they do not like what they see, the electorate can come down hard on the education establishment by rejecting levies.

That may be changing.

First, a primer on “excess levies.” They are so named because they permit school boards to charge property taxes in excess of regular rates. Here in West Virginia, every board collects a hefty chunk of normal property taxes. They are meant to ensure a foundation for good-quality schools.

But in many counties, school officials have asked for and received voter permission to tack on additional (“excess”) property taxes for schools. In quite a few of those counties voters for decades have chosen higher taxes in exchange for better schools.

But the “excess” levies have come to be viewed almost as givens. A few years ago, I asked three Northern Panhandle school superintendents when the last time was that voters in their counties had turned down an “excess” levy. None of them could recall when that occurred.

Here in Ohio County, we renewed our levy, for five years, on Nov. 9. Much had changed since it was last renewed in 2014.

For one thing, this time around the levy is expected to generate about $19 million a year — nearly 30 percent of the total school budget. In 2014, it was about $12.4 million annually, or nearly 20 percent of total spending.

Even a 20 percent budget cut would hurt schools badly. But 30 percent is out of the question. It had to be renewed, even if voters wanted to “send a message” to county education officials.

Then there was the matter of turnout. On Saturday, just 9.8 percent of Ohio County’s voters cast ballots, even though the early voting system left them with no excuse for not doing so. Just 2,898 people voted this year, compared to 6,385 in 2014.

Granted, this year’s referendum was held on a Saturday, with nothing else on the ballot. In 2014, the levy was on a primary election ballot. But folks, public schools are important. How much of our money we give them is critical. Yet more Ohio County voters are interested in, say, U.S. senators than schools. It makes no sense.

School levy referendums often are held on Saturdays, for a very good reason: Officials know fewer people are likely to bestir themselves to vote on a weekend. Remind school employees — a large chunk of the electorate — to go to the polls on a Saturday and your chances of winning are better.

Ohio County Schools has about 700 employees.

Understand this: I’m not picking on Ohio County Schools. It wouldn’t surprise me if the situation is much the same in other counties with excess levies. But for years, I’ve suggested to people that one reason local schools are better than most is that voters demand it — and, through those levy renewals every five years, have a way of enforcing their demands (in addition to voting for board of education members, of course).

But, again, voters who do go to the polls understand turning down the levy is like dropping a nuclear bomb: It would devastate schools. So they’re more likely to say yes.

And when voter turnout is abysmal, school officials can be pardoned for wondering if anyone really cares, one way or another. Accountability? What’s that?

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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