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Editorial: Faulty logic and poor math on SB 609

From The Exponent Telegram of Clarksburg: 
Even for those with knowledge of West Virginia’s education system, the state’s school aid formula is confusing and difficult to understand. For those outside that system, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend the steps taken to determine the state funding that county school districts receive.

The state’s school aid formula was developed from a landmark lawsuit that was settled about 35 years ago in May of 1982.

The Recht Decision, named after Circuit Judge Arthur Recht of Ohio County, came about after months of deliberations and testimony from education experts.

Judge Recht found that the state’s former school funding formula was flawed and created an unequal system, punishing students who lived in more rural areas and in areas that failed to support excess levies.

It is with the Recht Decision in mind that we peer dubiously at Senate Bill 609, which would give local school boards the ability to raise levy rates to offset planned state funding cuts.

The state Senate has proposed cutting about $80 million in school aid to counties. Locally, that would mean $3.7 million less in Harrison and about $1 million less in Lewis and Upshur counties each. Based on student population, it’s easy to reason that most counties in North Central West Virginia would see losses in state school funding somewhere between those figures.

School officials are obviously concerned, with Harrison Superintendent Dr. Manchin, a former state senator, leading the charge.

Manchin called the lawmakers out: “My personal feeling is that this is a cowardly way of passing on the responsibility of the Legislature to the local boards of education.”

Vowing to take whatever legal steps necessary, Manchin pointed out that the Harrison school system had already trimmed $400,000 from its budget after the latest statewide funding cuts.

“This has the potential to be detrimental to the students, programs, personnel and the county,” Manchin said. “… It would hit the entire state hard if this passes the House.”

Lewis County Board of Education President Paul Derico said the result of the state funding cut “would be devastating because we have already asked (voters) to pass this levy for us, which they have done graciously for more than 50 years.”

Likewise, Upshur County Superintendent Roy Wager said his county had “made every cut that we possibly can. Making more cuts isn’t an option.”

Under the legislation, counties could max out their regular levy property tax rates, basically replacing the state funding with local funding. But the increase in regular levy rates could have a ruinous effect on excess levies, which counties use for additional funding. Those excess levies require voters’ approval.

What happens if those excess levies fail or local boards of education decide not to increase regular levy rates?

The short answer seems to be that school systems would have to cut programs and personnel, which might be some lawmakers’ ultimate goal. After all, their idea could be to “starve the beast” of public education that way, instead of having to make difficult decisions with the state budget.

But we would argue most of the largesse in the state budget isn’t found in the school aid formula. True, school funding is a sizable portion of the state budget. But that doesn’t mean it is ill spent.

Lawmakers would be better off trimming the state education department of positions that have little to no contact directly with students, instead of possibly implementing a funding system that could drastically reduce the number of teachers in classrooms.

House of Delegates’ members would also be wise to consider several factors before even thinking about taking up Senate Bill 609.

If the bill is implemented to take effect in the next fiscal year, school systems would be hamstrung because their budgets are already — or nearly — finalized. And personnel decisions have already been made because state law requires notification of affected employees by March 1.

If SB 609 becomes law in the next fiscal year, counties would have no way to reduce costs by cutting personnel, Manchin said. That means administrators and boards of education would have only a small part of their budgets to cut from in order to offset the expected losses in state funding. That could prove nearly impossible and certainly wouldn’t lead to good decision-making.

The other problem Senate Bill 609 is likely to encounter is the Recht Decision. That’s what Manchin was referring to by legal action.

The Recht Decision came after a long and trying legal process, so the paperwork in the case is voluminous, but in reviewing synopses of the decision, we came across these nuggets that SB 609 could run afoul of:

“A high quality program consistent with Article XII, Section 1 of the West Virginia Constitution requires that all direct and indirect costs of the educational programs must be fully included in the state financing structure, i.e., curriculum costs, instructional, support and administrative staff salaries, benefits, supplies and equipment costs, and facility costs.”

The decision goes on to point out that “the State” has the “duty” to “eliminate the effects” of a variety of issues, including unequal costs among counties, hardships created by county isolation, sparsity, terrain and road conditions, as well as the effects of smaller student populations. The “State” also has a “legal duty” to “insure that school systems with greater educational needs and costs receive sufficient educational resources to meet those needs.”

The decision also concludes that relying on locally funded excess levies to provide essential programs “violates Article XII, Section 1 of the Constitution, because the amount of revenue that is raised through the excess levy varies dramatically among counties based upon the local property wealth of the county and the ability of the voters to approve an excess levy.”

It would seem logical that the same principle applies to regular levies. The state’s current school aid formula accounts for those funding differences between large and small counties, those highly or sparsely populated, and those that have less or more revenue because of elements like natural resources.

With Senate Bill 609, lawmakers are potentially setting up another lengthy legal battle over school funding, while jeopardizing the education of students currently enrolled in the state’s public schools.

The school funding approach proposed in SB 609 isn’t the answer to the state’s budget woes. The House should let this bill die.

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