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Making schools equal

April 03, 1997

West Virginia residents could face higher taxes in the next few years as a result of a judge's decision on school funding. We recommend that state officials use the year they've been given by the court to work out a solution to craft one that equalizes expenditures without adding a new layer of bureaucracy.

The court case that spawned the ruling came out of a 1979 case brought by Dan Hedges, a Charleston lawyer representing Lincoln County. That case went to the Ohio County Circuit Court, where Judge Arthur Recht (now on the state Supreme Court) issued a 1982 order saying that school funding must be equalized throughout the state.

There's been plenty of time to do that, but the measure Recht's order crafted to do that - an excess levy - was rejected by voters in 1984 and 1988. Frustrated by the lack of action, Hedges reopened the case in 1994. The Supreme Court then assigned it to Judge Dan Robinson, a retired Cabell County judge, who has given the state a year to get its act together.

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The flaw in the first ruling was its attempt to raise taxes by judicial mandate. Even those who favor increased school spending have to be a bit leery about the questionable means the judge sought to use to reach a desirable end.

We suspect the answer will not be in raising taxes, but in balancing the amount of state aid given to each county, so that the rich counties get less and the poor counties get more. The law will also have to place a cap on per-pupil expenditures state-wide, so that local levies aren't used to violate the court's order.

As we said earlier, we'd also like to see this issue resolved without adding another layer of state employees to monitor local compliance. We suggest that, for the purposes of compliance, audits of individual school boards' expenditures be accepted as proof that they're complying. It would be ironic (and sad) if this order resulted in more tax money being spent anywhere but inside the classroom.

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