Hopefully, time will run out on this funding bill
At first blush, allowing county boards to increase property tax rates to help fund education in their districts seems like a good idea.
After all, if locals are unhappy with the education their kids are getting or not satisfied with whatever share the state sends their way via school aid funding, then there is an answer: they can pay up via a hike in their property tax rate.
But upon further study and consideration of Senate Bill 609, co-sponsored by Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, the proposed legislation has too many fatal flaws to mend with the clock ticking toward the bewitching hour of this legislative session.
It is true. School superintendents and their boards across southern West Virginia – indeed, across our entire state – are cutting expenses, staff positions and curriculum offerings. In Raleigh County alone, board members have voted to cut more than 30 school aide positions and to restructure the way transportation and classroom aides deliver educational assistance to the district’s special needs children all in an effort to meet a predicted $6 million budget shortfall.
In the down draft of falling tax dollar collections brought about by the decline of the coal industry, higher unemployment, sluggish consumer spending and an aging population, school boards have little recourse but to reach for the budget shears.
Unfortunately, Senate Bill 609 is not the answer.
It is the very definition of returning power to the local schools districts – and therein lies the trouble.
We believe the state must assure a quality and near equal education for all of its students, no matter what holler they hail from. And that means state tax dollars need to be moved around from one district to another to level the playing field, from districts where the school is just down the street to those where the nearest classroom is over a mountain.
Likewise, not all school districts in the state enjoy the same tax base. In Wyoming County, where the coal industry was the only game in town, school officials are looking between the cushions for every last penny just to keep school doors open. To increase property taxes there would seem especially cruel.
Wyoming County had an unemployment rate of 8.4 percent in January of this year. Statewide, the jobless rate was 5.6 percent. The population slide in Wyoming County has become steeper of late, falling from 23,718 in 2010 to 20,763 in 2016 – a precipitous 12.5 percent decline. In 1979, 36,700 people called Wyoming County home.
There is nothing good in these numbers. And it’s not like Wyoming County homeowners aren’t being squeezed already. Their property tax rates have risen from $6.79 per $1,000 valuation in 2008 to $8.66 in 2015 – a 27.5 percent climb.
SB 609 assumes that all school districts are created equal and nothing could be further from the truth.
Another problem with the bill is that it makes no exceptions for those taxpayers who are subsisting on a fixed income. As of 2015, nearly one of five people living in the Mountain State was at least 65 years old. And the share of the elderly in this state is growing.
A property rate hike is going to make it difficult for many of those senior citizens to make ends meet – to stay in their homes, put dinner on the table, see a doctor or fill a prescription. Something will have to give.
While SB 609 made its way out of the Senate by the slimmest of margins, 17-16, its future – thankfully – looks dim.
Upon arrival in the House, the bill was sent to its Finance Committee where there are 122 bills pending action. The regular session of the legislature ends this Saturday night, and we are hoping the clock runs out of what may have been a well intentioned effort to create additional funding flexibility for school systems, but upon closer examination turned out to miss the grade.