Government, Latest News, WVPA Sharing

Education funding bill could force tax levy raise


The Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — Local school officials are concerned an education funding bill making its way through the state Legislature could force local school boards to raise their school levy rate, effectively raising residents’ property taxes, but might have a chilling effect on a local school board’s ability to get bonds and special excess levies approved by the public, school officials said.

When introduced by the Senate Education Committee on March 15, Senate Bill 609 would have cut the $79 million and newly allowed school boards to vote to opt in to increasing their regular levy property tax rates to make up for the state funding loss.

On Monday, the Senate Finance Committee modified the bill into a more straightforward statewide county property tax increase. Under the new version, county school boards would be able to opt out of having to raise their levy rates — if they are willing to take on a sizable financial hit.

Introduced by Sens. Ryan Ferns, Mike Azinger, Patricia Rucker and Sue Kline, all Republican, the bill looked to reduce public education funding by cutting the money available to be distributed by the school aid funding formula by five percent, or $55 million.

The bill was rewritten by the committee March 23, making a larger cut and shifting the tax burden away from general revenues to increased local property taxes. The bill will pass the authority to increase the levy rate from the Legislature to individual county boards of education.

The new version calls on the Legislature to increase the levying rate from 19.4 cents to the full 22.9 cents, rather than giving local county boards of education the authority to increase the rates..

The state’s school aid funding formula calculates the dollars each county receives, including a calculation based on the local funding brought in through a county excise school levy.

Those levies must be approved by the voters in the county because they result in increased property taxes in order to generate additional money for their schools. Levy rates — the percentage increase of taxes allowed to be proposed in a levy — are set by the Legislature.

Under state code, counties can assess levies at 19.4 cents for every $100 of value a property is appraised. The maximum the Legislature can set that rate at is just over 22 cents per $100 of value.

Under the revised bill, Berkeley County Schools could lose $4.1 million in state aid, said Manny Arvon, superintendent for Berkeley County Schools.

“My concern is, by moving the responsibility of setting the tax rate from the state level and moving it to local board education, is going to turn your Board of Education race from focusing on education, curriculum and instruction to ‘tax vs. no tax’ board election races,”Arvon said.

According to Arvon, SB 609 would also put at risk local school board’s ability to get school bonds and school excess levies passed by school district voters.

“When we go before the community and we want to build schools or what to have an excess levy for additional funds, we always go before the voters to get their permission,” Arvon said. “We feel that passing this bill will just muddy the waters. What happens now is, voters will say, ‘you raised our taxes.’”

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bondy Shay Gibson said passing the bill would have a “significant” impact on Jefferson County Schools and local taxpayers.

“To use the word ‘decimate’ is not inappropriate,” Gibson said. “In essence, the bill appears to be an attempt to shift the cost of education to lay more heavily upon the local taxpayers. Jefferson County families and businesses already take responsibility for supporting the educational program through the excess levy.”

According to Gibson, shifting the cost to the locality by offering the board the ability to raise the regular levy does little to address the structural deficits in the state budget.

“Our system has cut $1.2 million while our student population grew by more than 130 students,” Gibson said. “We did this primarily through administrative, central office and material and supply cuts so that we could maintain or add instructional staff for our growing population. We’ve reached our limits in our ability to sustain additional cuts and maintain the full range of programming that we currently offer.”

Under the original bill, Berkeley County would have lost around $4 million in state funding, Jefferson County, around $2.7 million, and Morgan County around $848,000. Sen. John R. Unger, D-16th District, said an increase in the school levy rate essentially will translate into a property tax increase for West Virginia residents.

Unger said the bill would ask West Virginians to take on a larger local share, increasing the property tax levying rate to the highest amount possible without a Constitutional amendment.

“The Legislature is empowering the school boards to vote to raise the levies in their own counties,” Unger said. “That’s a heavy tax burden for the citizens of our area, and that’s going to politicize those local boards of education. Instead of focusing on education, they’ll now be focusing in on taxation.”

Unger called the original bill essentially a tax increase in disguise.

“This is a coward’s way of the leadership here in Legislature to say that they didn’t raise taxes,” Unger said. “But instead they’ve forced the local school boards to raise taxes on themselves. This will destroy public education.”

Arvon hopes that cooler heads prevail when the final bill comes up for a vote.

“It’s my hope that there will be compromising between the House and the Senate,” Arvon said. “At the end of the day, I hope they will have better solutions with the huge funding crisis that the state faces.”

See more from The Journal

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

And get our latest content in your inbox

Invalid email address