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W.Va. lawmakers nix school funding cuts to 'growth' counties

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W.Va. lawmakers nix school funding cuts to 'growth' counties
by Matthew Umstead

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — West Virginia lawmakers have rejected Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's proposal to cut funding to "growth" county school districts, but concern remains on whether the changes ultimately will be undone.

House Bill 2478, which was reported out of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, originally proposed cuts of about $2.5 million in funding allocated to county school districts that have experienced enrollment gains of 50 or more students during any three of the last five years.

The bill also proposed a $2.5 million cut in revenue that school boards receive via Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT , agreements that local governments receive from some employers, as well as a reduction of $7 million to $8 million in funding for replacing school buses.

Joe Panetta of the West Virginia Department of Education told members of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday morning that the proposed growth county funding and PILOT cuts were stripped out of the legislation by bill amendments approved in the House of Delegates, according to an audio webcast of the committee proceedings.

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday adopted another amendment to address objections to the school bus replacement proposal before the legislation was referred to the committee.

Should the proposed funding cuts take effect, Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon said any reduction to the school district's budget by the Legislature would require additional program and personnel reductions.

"These cuts, in addition to an antiquated, underfunded state school-aid formula, would be devastating to our district," Arvon said this week in an email.
Constrained by repeated declines in property tax revenue, the school district recently finalized position cuts that directly affected 81 professional staff members, but avoided making any reductions in force.

"All 81 have been placed (in a position) without anyone losing their job," Arvon said.

Arvon said he didn't know why the growth county funding cut was proposed by Tomblin, but noted Berkeley County, which recorded a gain of about 450 students last fall, would feel the brunt of the reduction.

House Bill 2478, as proposed by Tomblin, would save the state $13 million.

Tomblin spokesman Christopher Stadelman said in an emailed statement that the governor "is mindful of the budget challenges related to fiscal year 2016, and continues to work with state agencies to fill the shortfall, as necessary."

"The bill would level the playing field for all 55 counties as it relates to education funding," Stadelman said.

Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, told Arvon in an email Monday that the House floor amendments to restore growth county funding affect six of the state's 55 counties, and the PILOT funding reduction would affect 11 counties.

"The two amendments we passed took away $5 million from the ($25 million) budget hole fix, so some ... are not very happy with our amendments," Duke said of the changes successfully offered by Dels. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, and Joe Statler, R-Monongalia.

Despite the House moves, Duke, who is vice chairman of the House Education Committee, told Arvon he has reason to believe that there might be moves to undo both amendments, "which is bad for us."