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State education department delivers budget

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State education department delivers budget
By Samuel Speciale

Education reporter Despite projected spending that will top $2 billion, West Virginia Department of Education officials say state funding for the next fiscal year will be at a five-year low.

The budget, which calls for nearly $2 billion in state general funds and an additional $500 million in lottery and federal money, was the topic of a lengthy two-hour discussion on Wednesday between State Superintendent Michael Martirano, senior department officials and members of the House Finance Committee.

Martirano, who has been the state’s schools chief since September, acknowledged the criticism his department faces for the amount of money it spends, but said the budget has been aligned with his strategic plan to be more efficient and effective and focused on improving student achievement.

“This is the children’s budget,” Martirano told committee members while pointing to the colorful hand prints plastered on the proposal’s cover. He said they represent West Virginia’s 280,000 students, who “need to be at the center of our conversations here today.”

Martirano spent most of the presentation describing how the budget reflects his vision plan, but had the department’s chief financial officers briefly take committee members through the budget’s 167 line items.

Money appropriated to the department from the state’s general fund will pay for various learning programs and school aids as well as the operation of regional service agencies, the state’s deaf and blind school and the camp and conference center at Cedar Lakes in Jackson County.

State funding for the department has declined since 2010 when the budgets of all state departments were cut. Joe Panetta, the department’s chief operations officer, said total reductions since then total $30 million.

Part of the reason education spending has been slashed is a statewide decrease in student enrollment, which school officials say is only now starting to stabilize.

Martirano also said the number of people employed by the department is at an all-time low, which he said is a result of the department’s fulfillment of an efficiency audit’s mandate to reduce staffing by 5 percent. That audit, commissioned in 2012 by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, found the department had a bloated administration that wasted millions.

While the department has more than 700 people on its payroll, Martirano pointed out that only 249 reported to Building 6 each day. The rest are employed by the state school for the deaf and blind, the school building authority, the Office of Institutional Programs, Cedar Lakes, the Office of Educational Performance Audits and the state Board of Education.

While the department has created several new administrative positions, Martirano said a full review of the department’s staff will be conducted.

“When I speak to my employees, I always ask them ‘What are you doing to improve student achievement?’” Martirano said. “If they can’t answer that, they have to rethink what they are doing.”

The department also is asking the Legislature for an additional $10 million as part of what Martirano is calling an improvement package. If granted, that money would continue the funding of several learning programs, allow the state’s deaf and blind school to make improvements and pay contracted employees to assist the audits office with on-site school performance reviews.