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State budget still ‘up in the air,’ but deep education cuts seem less likely


The Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG, W.Va.  — While the West Virginia Legislature completed this year’s regular session Saturday, lawmakers will return to a special session when they have to come to an agreement on a budget for the state. And as part of that, school funding is “up in the air” at this point in time, according to area lawmakers.

While running close to the wire Saturday evening, the Legislature ran out of time while discussing the latest version brought to the floor by Gov. Jim Justice, according to Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton.

“What happens now is that we will take the Senate version, the House version and the governor’s version and the finance committees will attempt to combine the three, and we will reconvene in special session,” he said. “We are going to try and make the best we can out of it.”

Facemire said after seeing how close the three budget versions are, the Legislature will proceed from there.

On March 29, the West Virginia Senate passed a bill that would cut state public education funding for preschool through 12th grade by $79 million, which would cause counties to raise their regular levy property tax rates to make up for the difference. The House never took the bill up.

Facemire said he doesn’t anticipate that the cut to public education will occur, as the governor’s budget version does not include a cut to education, but instead gives a boost to teachers’ salaries.

The budget that was passed showed significant cuts to higher education, according to House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison. Miley said he is “fairly certain” there were no cuts to public education.

“Personally, I feel we are going in the wrong direction by taking money out of higher education,” he said. “We need to be putting money into higher education and urging more students to pursue post-secondary education.”

Miley said the budget still must be signed by Justice. If he vetoes the budget bill, it will force the Legislature to reconvene to try to reach a compromise.

Saturday evening, the legislative session closed with the passing of a bill eliminating the current regional education service agencies, the state Office of Education Performance Audits and the mandate for public school year calendars to have 180 instructional days. The bill would also ban the current Smarter Balanced state assessment.

In the event that Justice signs House Bill 2711, it is estimated to save $3.7 million next fiscal year by eliminating RESAs and $1.2 million by cutting the auditing office.

Del. Richard Iaquinta, D-Harrison, said nixing RESAs is going to negatively impact the state and more than just the education system.

“RESAs mainly operate from federal grants, and most of their money is generated from outside sources,” he said. “They offer services and programs at a much more discounted rate, and they don’t just benefit the school systems, but the community, as well.”

RESAs provide training for volunteer fire departments and CDL drivers across the state, Iaquinta said. They also provide teachers and substitutes and discounted programs available to buy in conjunction with other counties for reduced cost, technology support and more.

Iaquinta said that by eliminating RESAs, the state believes counties will automatically join other counties to help with each others’ needs.

“The reality is, it hasn’t worked that way previously, and our needs are incredibly different from another county’s needs,” he said. “They broke down the RESAs into different districts in order to have more buying power and to utilize shared services.”

Under the bill, county school boards are allowed to form regional agencies called educational services cooperatives.

Harrison Superintendent Dr. Mark Manchin said he is hopeful Justice will not sign off on significant cuts to public education.

“The proposed budget did not have any mention of the significant cuts that we have recently seen,” he said. “I feel comfortable that we won’t be expecting those changes.”

Other education bills:
Senate Bill 630 was passed by the Legislature and would allow county school systems to offer full-time K-12 virtual education, while also receiving the full per-pupil state school aid formula funding for each student who participates. This would be an online option for earning a high school diploma.

Manchin said he is in favor of virtual education and plans to look more closely at the option with the county school board.

“Virtual education gives students who are perhaps struggling or are not doing well in a traditional student environment the option to succeed and receive their diploma in a way that works better for them,” he said. “This gives county school boards the opportunity to remediate and accelerate.”

In order to create a virtual program, school systems would have to create policies outlining how the program will work. They can then issue contracts with virtual-school providers.

“They will still have to meet the same testing requirements and coursework requirements as other students in the district in order to receive their diploma,” Manchin said.

As a result of the passage of House Bill 3080, the week of Sept. 11 would be designated as “Celebrate Freedom Week” in West Virginia schools, requiring public and private school students to study America’s founding documents.

The bill requires an “in-depth study of the intent, meaning and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, with an emphasis on the Bill of Rights.”

The bill would not require students to learn about the Sept. 11 attacks or how the founding documents do or do not relate to the Sept. 11 events.

Manchin said he is supportive of the bill and instilling the importance of the founding documents for Harrison County students.

“It brings attention to the sacrifice that people have made and continue to make to protect the individuals of our country,” he said. “We don’t need any legislative action to require us to celebrate our freedom and those who fight for it.”

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