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Panhandle lawmakers tackle same issues

January 22, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - This year's session of the West Virginia Legislature is starting to look in some key respects like a repeat of last year's.

Funding for the Panhandle's rapidly growing school systems and regulation of quarries are among the priorities for local lawmakers during the 60-day session in Charleston. Both issues were unsuccessfully raised in the Legislature last year.

School funding has been a particular concern in the Panhandle over the last year.

Berkeley County School Board member Bill Sonnik said the local school system can't wait much longer for help. If lawmakers cannot find more money for local school construction in this legislative session, the district could face a serious problem finding room to house all of Berkeley County's students, Sonnik said.

"It has to happen this year. We have to make them realize the growth is here and it's steady," Sonnik said.

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Panhandle lawmakers said they have some ideas on how to get results this session, which began last week.

Because most areas of the state have seen a decrease in student population, the emphasis has been on building large schools and closing smaller ones, said Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley. Because many of the consolidation projects have been completed, there should be more money available for growing school districts, Faircloth said.

To compete for money, Berkeley County will have to prove it needs extra money for school construction, "which we can easily do," Faircloth said.

Berkeley County Superintendent of Schools Manny Arvon told state lawmakers during interim legislative meetings in November that Berkeley County's population will grow by 3,500 students over the next 10 years. By 2015, Berkeley County's school system is expected to surpass Kanawha County's as the largest in the state, Arvon said.

Last month, Arvon said the school system is buying 16 portable classrooms to accommodate space demands next year. Arvon said he would have preferred building new schools, but it is hard to build them fast enough to meet demand.

Del. Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley, agrees that the state School Building Authority, the agency in charge of funding school construction in the state, may have more money for growth counties this year.

However, Douglas said school construction funding may be complicated by a 1982 state Circuit Court ruling that West Virginia's method of paying for public education was unconstitutional because it favored wealthier counties by relying too heavily on county taxes. Construction funding could be affected by the need to conform to the court's mandate to maintain educational equality.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he would like to see the School Building Authority set up a second fund for growth counties. Unger said he, Del. Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson, and Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, met with authority director Clacy Williams last week about funding alternatives.

"We're moving forward. We have legislation on the table," said Unger.

Quarries

Lawmakers have been trying for 10 years to develop new regulations for rock quarries. For decades, quarries have been operating under coal mining regulations that do not fit the industry, experts say.

Interest in new quarry regulations increased in the Eastern Panhandle in the early 1990s when a Maryland firm unsuccessfully attempted to build a rock quarry near several high-tech firms in the Baker Heights area.

Manuel drafted a bill that has been supported by environmentalists, and the industry preferred a bill put together by Douglas.

The bills offered by Manuel and Douglas last year were similar in some ways, such as calling for a reclamation fund to pay for cleanup efforts in quarries that have caused environmental problems. But they could not agree on how to set up a fund.

This year, lawmakers will consider a "hybrid" bill that will blend features of the two bills into one proposal, Manuel said. But Manuel said he is still concerned about issues regarding buffer zones and the reclamation fund, which he said is "grossly underfunded."

Sen. Herb Snyder, chairman of an interim committee that put together the proposal, said the reclamation fund could be re-examined.

"I've told Dale over and over we are not done with this," said Snyder, D-Jefferson.

A proposed community college for Berkeley County and expansion of the Eastern Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Martinsburg are also expected to be considered during the legislative session.

The juvenile detention center on South Queen Street is not big enough, and there was consideration of converting the former Eastern Regional Jail along W.Va. 9 into a youthful offender facility. But it is now generally agreed that the old jail is too close to the new Eastern Regional Jail to be used for youths, Faircloth said.

Faircloth and others said they would like to see the juvenile detention center enlarged.

Local officials have been pushing for a community college in Berkeley County to provide growing demand for workforce development programs. A number of sites have been suggested for the school, including the Blue Ridge Outlets or James Rumsey Technical Institute.

Douglas said the community college idea is likely to be part of a larger discussion of how higher education will be funded in the state in coming years.

"That's an issue that's high on everybody's list down here," Faircloth said.

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