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Editorial - Will school bill satisfy?

March 11, 1998

Editorial - Will school bill satisfy?

With less than a week to go before the end of the West Virginia legislature's 1998 session - and just a few days before a scheduled court date - lawmakers are hammering out final details of a bill designed to equalize school funding across the state.

The stakes are high. If Cabell County Judge Dan Robinson doesn't like what lawmakers bring into court March 16, he could appoint a commissioner to take over the state school system.

Here's the problem: In 1982, a judge ruled that because local school systems depended a great deal on property-tax revenues to fund their school systems, there was no way that poor counties could spend as much as the wealthier ones. The state was ordered to find a solution to equalize spending across the state.

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Last spring, the lawyer who filed the original suit came back to court, complaining that nothing had been done. Judge Robinson gave lawmakers another year to finish the job, saying that if they didn't do it, he would.

Whether or not this bill will satisfy the judge is unknown, but lawmakers have come a long way since their unfocused first draft in December. Their plan would work as follows:

- a new formula for transportation reimbursements would be put in place. The more rural counties, with a lower population density (and longer bus runs) would get 90 percent of their costs reimbursed, as opposed to 85 percent for more urban counties.

- an Office of Education Performance Audits would be created. It would report directly to the state school board on which schools are fulfilling their missions, and which aren't. Those that aren't would get additional funds and training, though the state would presumably retain the right to take over local systems as it has in Logan and Mingo counties.

Will this satisfy the judge? Yes, if he can get beyond the idea that the only acceptable solution involves spending identical amounts on each child, no matter where that child is schooled. This bill, or at least the version that won senate passage, would target money based on need, as opposed to everyone getting the same amount. It makes sense to us, but the court may not agree. We await Monday's hearing with great interest.

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