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Unger upset with death of growth fund

March 14, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A proposal to create a construction fund for growing school districts may have been a casualty of another education bill's success.

With a plan to reorganize higher education getting a lot of attention in the state Legislature, the growth fund, and other education bills, may have been left in its wake, said Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley.

The Schools for Growth Counties Fund would have especially benefited Eastern Panhandle districts, where student enrollment is rising rapidly.

The fund, which would have started at $3 million and increased to $5 million after one year, passed the Senate on March 3.

But the House of Delegates did not vote on the bill before the session ended Saturday night, so it died. Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday to finish working on the budget.

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According to Faircloth, legislators spent several days working on a bill that expands the community college system.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, one of the sponsors of the growth fund bill, said the superintendents in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties supported it, and he is "very disappointed" it didn't pass.

Berkeley County, for example, needs to build a new school each year to keep up with enrollment, so it needs the extra money, he said.

And in Jefferson County, three new subdivisions that are in the planning stages could bring more than 2,000 additional students on top of regular enrollment increases.

David Markoe, the superintendent of Jefferson schools, said the fund would have helped because the Panhandle is the state's growth hot-spot.

Last year, a facilities committee completed a report on the building needs of the school district over the next 10 years. Markoe said the cost was estimated at $52 million, with about $25 million going toward a new high school.

But Pete Dougherty, a Jefferson County School Board member, said the fund wouldn't have relieved much of that financial burden because Jefferson and six other counties would share a maximum pot of $5 million.

A better solution, he said, would be for the state to ensure that districts get aid based on their needs. Currently, Jefferson grows faster than other counties but gets a smaller share of school funding, he told the Charles Town Planning Commission during a discussion about a development Monday night.

The growth fund would have supplemented the existing $22 million School Building Authority fund. All districts in the state compete for its money when they have building projects, Unger said.

As the state pays off two large education bonds, money formerly needed for bond payments would have gone to the growth fund instead.

Only counties that had a 5 percent increase in net student enrollment over the previous nine years would have been eligible for the construction fund. To start, that would have included the three Panhandle counties, plus four others. They would have had to show continued growth to keep receiving money from the fund.

Unger said the bill should have had a tougher time passing the Senate because legislators from southern counties that would not stand to benefit from the bill lead several committees in that house. It passed the Senate unanimously but entered the House Education Committee March 6 and never came out.

Faircloth and Unger agreed that the bill will almost certainly be pursued in the next session.

It was one of the Panhandle delegation's priorities, Faircloth said.

"Often, the first year, a bill will make it through one house," he said. "The following year, it will get a head of steam and make it through both."

He mentioned this year's bill on quarrying that passed both houses. Faircloth said he first proposed it more than four years ago.

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