WV counties plan for $16M in statewide school funding cuts

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WV counties plan for $16M in statewide school funding cuts
By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

Kanawha and Berkeley counties are expected to lose more than $1 million each, and Putnam and six other counties are each expected to lose more than $500,000 in the first mid-school-year cut since the early ’90s to West Virginia K-12 schools’ largest funding source. Joe Panetta, the state Department of Education’s chief operations officer, said a roughly $16 million statewide cut — equaling 1 percent of the $1.6 billion Basic Program Allowance calculated by the state school funding formula — would come alongside a 4 percent cut, totaling $5 million, to funding for the education agencies under the state Board of Education’s oversight.

The exact level of decreases won’t be finalized until Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who announced cuts for state agencies last week, “largely due to unexpected and unprecedented drops in the state’s severance tax collections,” issues an executive order this week.

The state school board oversees the education department, the eight Regional Education Service Agencies, the Office of Education Performance Audits and the Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

Panetta said education officials haven’t yet made final determinations on where the $5 million will be cut, and he said the governor has excluded some areas from being decreased — including a special education fund and the amount the state’s required to pay annually to also receive federal dollars to feed needy students.

Local school systems are having to consider how to deal with the overall $16 million decrease on their end. Panetta said counties won’t be allowed to cut their restricted funding for things like school buses and faculty senate meetings by more than 1 percent. The school funding formula measures student enrollment and teachers’ salaries, among other factors, to determine how much money each county gets annually.

The amount thus changes from year to year, and school systems develop their budgets around the formula’s calculations, but a mid-school-year cut to the funding source hasn’t happened in about two decades.

There was roughly a $17.6 million statewide drop in the Basic Program Allowance from last school year to this one, mostly because of dropping student enrollment and continued retirements of higher-paid teachers.

School systems already had drawn up spending plans accounting for that decrease when the additional $16 million cut — this one blamed largely on a projected $190 million shortfall in severance tax revenues, which are collected from coal, oil, gas and timber — was announced last week.

Calhoun County Schools’ cut is expected to be $73,000, the fifth-lowest in the state, but the small school system is dealing with the largest deficit in the West Virginia, one that exceeds one-fifth of its annual operating budget. That $73,000 — alongside what Dan Minney said is an expected $100,000 settlement with school employees over grievances they filed concerning the county’s previous attempts to cut their pay to balance the budget — exceeds the $150,000 deficit reduction Calhoun had planned for this school year.

But Minney, Calhoun’s chief financial officer and assistant to its superintendent, said he still wants to cut some amount from the deficit, so he’ll look at further reducing planned expenses this school year.

“Travel, repair, maintenance and transportation are really the only places we have to work with, so it’s going to be a tough year,” Minney said.

He called the situation disappointing.

“Everyone worked so hard this past year to at least stop the bleeding,” he said.

“In a county like Calhoun, we’re already living hand to mouth,” said Tim Woodward, Calhoun’s schools superintendent. “So it’s not that easy to say take $73,000 off the budget.”

Woodward said about 86 percent of his budget is personnel expenses, but even if his or other counties wanted to cut costs through layoffs, reductions in force couldn’t take effect until the start of next fiscal year because of state laws preventing layoffs of current employees.

Kanawha schools Superintendent Ron Duerring said his county is still evaluating how it will handle its expected $1.6 million cut. “It could be a host of things,” he said.

Kanawha schools treasurer Lisa Wilcox said the school system, which has a $236.1 million budget this school year, has a $15 million “carryover” from last school year, but a large part of it is dedicated to paying expenses incurred in 2014-15.

Chris Campbell, Putnam’s schools treasurer, said his county’s current plan is to take all of its expected $543,000 cut from a more than $2.6 million contingency fund, part of a $94.2 million operating budget for this school year. However, he noted that the school system just found out about the cuts last Tuesday.

R. Darrin Butcher, treasurer and chief school business official for Raleigh County Schools, wrote in an email to the Gazette-Mail that he plans to meet with other Raleigh school officials next week to discuss how to deal with his school system’s expected $699,000 in cuts.

“We have already taken steps to eliminate all overtime not deemed essential or an emergency,” Butcher wrote.

Terry George — superintendent of the struggling Fayette County school system, which is expected to get $386,000 in cuts — didn’t return calls for comment.