MOUNT ZION – Before getting into Hamlet or The Crucible, Calhoun County English teacher MG Gainer asks her students to list all the plays they’ve ever seen. Most say they’ve never seen a real play with lights and a crew.
Unlike when she attended high school there, there isn’t money to go on field trips to see a play or explore a museum.
“To be confronted with classrooms of juniors and seniors who said, ‘I’ve never seen a play. I’ve never been to a museum,’” she said. “That’s pretty staggering.”
Like many places in West Virginia, Calhoun County is struggling to provide students with extracurriculars – and pay for greatly needed building maintenance.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers did increase support for public schools through a law that will, among other things, hire nearly 2,500 teachers’ aides.
But Calhoun residents also want lawmakers to change the school funding formula in a way that would help some of West Virginia’s least populated counties. A Senate bill that would’ve done so stalled in the Finance committee.
So for now, Calhoun schools will keep relying on the generosity of individual teachers and community members to patch up budget holes. Because when recently given a chance to approve additional funding for local schools, many Calhoun County residents voted no.
‘I have nothing to replace that with.’
Last November, voters rejected an excess levy that would’ve brought nearly $700,000 in each of the next four years to Calhoun County schools through additional property taxes. The levy failed by just 38 votes – less than 1% of registered voters.
It would’ve funded summer, after school and technical training programs – like horticulture, welding or graphic design. It would’ve also paid for building and facility upgrades, like putting turf on the football field and renovating heating and cooling systems.
Inside Gainer’s classroom, most of the desks need repairs. Parts have fallen off and left sharp, exposed metal. She bought duct tape with her own money to cover the edges after cutting her hand.
“Today, one of the students was being kind of silly and I said ‘Hey, don’t be tearing up my desk, I don’t have anything to replace that with,’” she said.
Sitting at a wooden table in the Calhoun County Board of Education building, Superintendent Kelli Whytsell said administrators must constantly balance budget constraints and the needs of students.
The baseball and softball fields don’t have lights which means games must start earlier and are sometimes cut short when it gets too dark.
And before each school year begins, staff have just a few days to get the schools ready for students. Whytsell wants to be able to pay some custodians to work a few more weeks during the summer like other counties do, but after voters rejected the levy, there just isn’t the funding.
Calhoun County has a rapidly aging population, so many people don’t have school-aged children. Some were already distrustful of the local Board of Education, which only pulled itself out of a budget deficit a few years ago.
“I think the economics of the county – high unemployment, everything was costing more. And they felt that this was another burden that they’re not sure that they could afford,” Whytsell said.
With the county’s financial challenges, residents have argued for a larger amount of state funding.
How the state school aid formula works
The state funding formula for West Virginia schools is largely based on how many students are enrolled in a county. There are provisions to provide extra funding for the state’s least populated counties by funding them for more students than they actually have. But Whytsell and other Calhoun County residents say changes are still needed.
They have repeatedly asked state lawmakers to update the funding formula so every county is funded for at least 1200 students. Right now, that would increase state funding for three counties: Gilmer, Wirt and Calhoun.
A Senate bill to make the change was introduced this year. It would’ve cost the state less than $1.2 million annually, but it never passed the Senate Finance Committee.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, a Republican who represents Calhoun County and lives in neighboring Clay County, said he plans to sponsor a bill that will change the school funding formula during the next legislative session. He also said voters in his home county were wrong when they too voted down a levy last year.
“I have two children in that school system. And I believe that voters made a colossal mistake there in not renewing that excess levy,” Hanshaw said. “I’m really disappointed about it. I hope soon we can get it back on the ballot again.”
Residents chip in to help school system
After Calhoun County’s levy failed, Deirdre Purdy, a former member of the county Board of Education, was angry. But, she’s channeled that energy towards improving the consolidated Calhoun County Middle/High school’s deteriorated lighting and sound systems.
The levy funding would’ve helped fix the systems, which are more than two decades old and some believe were made worse by lightning from a big storm. Amplifiers to help performers hear themselves and the dimmer on the stage lighting system are both broken.
“Shelley Moore Capito was there last week, talking to the fifth and sixth grade girls. And she said, ‘Could somebody turn off the spotlight?’” Purdy said. “And they said, ‘No, the only way to light you is with a spotlight in your face. We don’t have a dimmer, we can’t control it. It’s on or off.’”
But that may change soon. Purdy and other Calhoun residents formed a nonprofit called The Sound and Light Project – and raised nearly half of the money needed to complete the repairs. With some help from the Calhoun County Board of Education, they only need about $20,000 to finish the repairs on the auditorium – also the county’s only performing arts venue.
But without a change to the school funding formula or a levy, budget constraints will remain.
Michael McHenry teaches music, band and theater at the middle/high school. For the long hours he puts in working with the school band after school, on the weekend and over the summer, he gets just $3,000 a year. His four assistant band directors, one of whom is his wife, are all volunteers.
But he said he’s proud of what his students have done with few resources, and that two of his percussionists were recently selected for prestigious performances at the state level.
“The kids that have been going and winning these awards are doing these awesome things,” he said. “How much more would I be able to do if I had a budget to replace some of our failing instruments?”