Wetzel schools seek ideas for spending $4.7 million

NEW MARTINSVILLE, W.Va. — Wetzel County Schools officials have a $4.7 million surplus to spend, and they are asking the community to list how they want that money to be used.

Treasurer Jeffrey A. Lancaster said increased property values resulting from Marcellus shale drilling are largely the reason why the district had a $4.7 million surplus in fiscal year 2013, and now the district’s leaders are seeking the best way to spend the extra dollars. They are visiting each of district’s school facilities and asking staff, students and parents what they most need.

These meetings should be completed in early November, and decisions about spending the money should be made by the end of the year, according Lancaster.

“We all know what the driving force behind the surplus is: Marcellus shale,” Lancaster said. “Its effect is just starting to hit us, and we’re starting to see increase in property values and tax collections. This is the first year we started to see the larger amounts.”

The school district’s annual budget is about $43 million, and the $4.7 million surplus represents more than 10 percent of that amount. Wetzel County voters have approved an excess levy for the school district set at a 100 percent rate.

The school district’s property taxes collections grew from $10.3 million in 2012 to $18.9 million in 2013 – an $8.6 million increase, according to Lancaster. State aid to Wetzel County Schools was reduced by $4.3 million as a result, he said.

Additional savings also was accrued as the school district also is paying a younger staff less salary, he said.

“There are other factors (resulting in revenue) that made for the perfect storm when it comes to finances in the school system,” Lancaster said. “It may not be the best thing for the kids, but we’ve had a large exodus of teachers retiring. We have replaced them, but we’ve replaced a teacher with master’s degrees and 40 years experience with teachers just out of college with bachelor’s degrees and probably zero experience. We’ve actually increased the number of employees we have, but the salary costs have gone down.”

The school district has 446 employees, and will likely be bringing back teachers and reinstating programs eliminated three years ago when revenues were low.

“Before collections increased, we were forced to cut a lot of electives in schools,” he said. “Since then we have tried to stay as close as we could to the state aid funding formula, and we have been able to put back some of the positions (with the aid money). Some of the ($4.7 million surplus) definitely will be used to fund positions not funded by the state aid.”

He expects the district also will seek to hire additional school nurses and upgrade its bus fleet. It is also likely new shatterproof windows will be placed at the elementary school buildings to assure student safety.

“The school district is not in the business of making money, and the money will definitely go back to he students of Wetzel County,” he said. “We’re not hoarding money. We’re just in the right place when it comes to Marcellus shale exploration, and our students will benefit from that.”

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