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School funding bill flies through W.Va. Senate

March 06, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The West Virginia Senate unanimously approved a bill Friday that would create a special school building fund for high-growth areas such as the Eastern Panhandle.

The Schools For Growth Counties Fund would use money that had gone for payments on two education bonds that are almost paid off, said Sen. John R. Unger, D-Berkeley, the bill's lead sponsor in the Senate.

The growth fund for construction would start at $3 million in the next fiscal year, which begins in July, and increase the next year to $5 million, the level at which it would be capped annually, Unger said.

The bill is now in the House of Delegates. The House will vote on it if the Education and Finance committees there approve it, Unger said.

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The last day of the legislative session is Saturday.

To be eligible, a county must have had an increase in its net student enrollment of at least 5 percent in the most recent nine-year period.

Today, that would include all three Panhandle counties - Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan.

Unger said it would also include four others: Hampshire and Hardy in the eastern part of the state and Putnam and Wirt in the western region.

But unlike the Panhandle counties, where future growth is imminent, the other four may not stay eligible next year if their enrollment changes, he said.

The latest version of the bill, which passed the senate 34-0 Friday, incorporated the essence of an earlier bill by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson. He had proposed that growth counties be required to report to the legislature the amount of money they'll need to build new facilities. The legislature, however, was not obligated to fund the projects.

As a definition for growth, Snyder used a 1.5 percent annual increase in student enrollment.

Unger said the standard of 5 percent growth over nine years is a better one because it measures patterns instead of one-time spikes.

In the Senate Finance Committee, Unger's original proposal to use extra money from the state lottery fund for school construction was amended, he said.

Instead, excess money from the state's School Building Authority fund will be used for the growth fund, he said.

The SBA fund will continue to be $22 million each year, according to Unger. But as two state education bonds are paid off, the SBA will grow. The new bill lets the SBA rise to $50 million, with $5 million of it going to the growth fund, he said.

Counties that receive growth fund money must match half of it, and they are still eligible for money from the SBA fund, Unger said.

Panhandle counties have been expanding rapidly, and more development lies ahead.

Berkeley County has been taking in hundreds of new students, enough to build a new school each year.

The district recently purchased 17 acres on Eagle School Road in Martinsburg to build a $5.9 million intermediate school. Plans for a second new intermediate school are in the works.

Massive development has been proposed in Jefferson County.

Over a three-week period in February, plans were revealed for three separate developments there that could total nearly 5,000 homes.

The largest, Hunt Field south of Charles Town, would add a projected 1,650 new students to Jefferson County schools.

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