By March 31, 2017 Read More →

WV Senate passes school tax increase bill; local school officials are concerned

BY KAILEE E. GALLAHAN

The Exponent Telegram

CLARKSBURG, W.Va.  — Area school officials are concerned that a bill passed by the state Senate would devastate county school systems, programs, personnel and budgets.

Senate Bill 609 would reduce state education funding by $79.3 million and automatically raise counties’ regular levy property tax rates to make up for that loss.

The measure is now headed to the House of Delegates’ Education Committee. Passage in the full House would send it to the desk of Gov. Jim Justice, where his signature would make it law. And even if Justice vetoes the bill, lawmakers could try to override his veto.

Harrison County Superintendent Dr. Mark Manchin said the bill could have a devastating impact on county school systems, pushing some into budget deficits.

Harrison County would lose $3.7 million in state funding under the bill.

“This has the potential to be detrimental to the students, programs, personnel and the county,” Manchin said. “Losing $4 million on top of the nearly $400,000 that we lost in the middle of the year would hit the county hard. It would hit the entire state hard if this is passed in the House.”

Manchin said the Harrison Board of Education is monitoring the bill.

“My personal feeling is that this is a cowardly way of passing on the responsibility of the Legislature to the local boards of education,” he said. “We will take whatever legal action if necessary.”

Harrison school board president Gary Hamrick also had harsh words for the bill.

“As a county, we have worked hard to keep the levy rates down over the years, and that would be all for nothing if this bill passes at the House,” Hamrick said.

If the bill becomes law, county school boards would “take the hit” for raising levy rates, he said.

“We have a part-time Legislature with full-time pay, and they are kicking a decision they are supposed to be charged with to part-time county school boards, and it’s not their job to begin with,” Hamrick said.

Senate Bill 609 would enable county school boards to opt out of the property tax increase if they are willing to accept the funding reduction.

There may be potential to absorb some of the projected financial hit, according to Greg Phillips, Harrison County Education Association president.

“I have not had the opportunity to sit down with the school board and discuss the potential options, but we will make plans for every contingency,” Phillips said. “It is too early to tell what could happen without the bill having passed in the House.”

Phillips said he doesn’t expect any significant increase in Harrison levy rates, but there is no way to know yet.

Lewis County School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Mace said he was reluctant to make a comment on the bill until he sees the final outcome.

If the bill were to pass, Lewis County’s school system could expect to lose a little over $1 million.

“The burden to pay extra money would be placed on the local counties’ taxpayers,” said Paul Derico, president of the Lewis school board. “It would be devastating because we have already asked them to pass this levy for us, which they have done graciously for more than 50 years.”

Derico said that, if at all possible, he would like to avoid any additional increase in levy rates for taxpayers in Lewis County if the bill were to pass.

Upshur County School Superintendent Roy Wager said he hopes the increase in levy rates would offset the cut in state funding in order to avoid any difficulties in the county. Upshur County would lose just short of $1 million under the bill.

“We have made every cut that we possibly can. Making more cuts isn’t an option,” he said.

Wager said the Upshur school system has taken the necessary steps to ensure it is being fiscally responsible.

The county has cut summer maintenance, summer painting in schools and extra duty contracts for the summer, he said.

“We have taken all of the measures to cut everything extra, and we have even cut the professional and service personnel that we could in order to make up for the loss in funding,” Wager said. “If this bill passes in the House and the levy rates don’t offset the cut in funding, we could have a problem on our hands.”

Attempts to contact multiple state lawmakers from both parties about the bill were unsuccessful Thursday.

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