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West Virginia Democrats push for answers in handling of COVID funding

By Steven Allen Adams, The Parkersburg News and Sentinel

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the clock ticks down to the end of the 2024 legislative session Saturday, lawmakers are working on a budget for the next fiscal year with questions remaining over a pending waiver of nearly half-a-billion dollars West Virginia might have to dump into education spending.

In a press conference Monday morning, members of the House Democratic caucus demanded answers from Gov. Jim Justice and the Republican majority over negotiations between the state and the U.S. Department of Education to waive federal requirements to meet a required education spending threshold to avoid having a clawback of more than $1.1 billion in COVID-19 education grants.

“We are demanding answers right now,” said House Minority Leader Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell. “The people of West Virginia deserve transparency and be able to have a government that they can trust.”

It was revealed last week during a House Finance Committee meeting where the budget bill for fiscal year 2025 beginning in July was presented that the state is in negotiations for the U.S. Department of Education for the second year in a row over the fiscal year 2023 maintenance of effort (MOE) waiver requirements.

As a result of accepting more than $1.1 billion through three tranches of COVID-19 education funding via the U.S. Department of Education’s Elementary And Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER), the state was required to maintain a certain percentage of total education spending based on spending during the three fiscal years prior to the start of the pandemic. That percentage was 41.6%, but the state fell short of that percentage in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

The state applied for a waiver from this requirement in 2022, explaining that due to the state’s student aid formula and how education is funded in the state, direct funding of education was difficult.

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