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W.Va. lawmakers eye college center, funding for schools

March 19, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Education matters were among the top issues facing lawmakers in the recent session of the West Virginia Legislature.

Issues under consideration included a planned community college in Berkeley County and a request for funding to help counties in the Eastern Panhandle deal with growing student populations

The regular legislative session concluded March 11. However, a special session was convened by Gov. Cecil Underwood this weekend to address higher education reform after the governor vetoed a reform bill Friday night.

Area lawmakers were confident of gaining passage of a reform bill that could, among other things, pave the way for a Berkeley County community college that business leaders and educators say is needed to offer work force training programs.

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In addition, the Martinsburg City Council wants to help Shepherd College, which is in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in neighboring Jefferson County, find a place in Martinsburg to relocate its Community and Technical College.

Underwood's concerns about the reform bill included how to set up a higher education interim governing board to oversee establishment of free-standing community colleges around the state, said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he is confident a revised bill will be passed today.

School funding

Another education issue - getting extra money to help county school systems in the Eastern Panhandle deal with growing student populations - continues to pose a challenge for lawmakers.

Unger proposed a bill that would have set aside payments on two education bonds and used the money to help growing counties pay for new school construction. The bill would have set aside $3 million for growing counties in the first year and $5 million the following year, Unger said.

But the bill died, and Unger is criticizing two of his colleagues in the House of Delegates for not doing more to help it win approval.

The Schools for Growth Counties fund sailed through the Senate March 3, but hardly caught the attention of anyone in the House of Delegates.

"They have leadership over there from the Eastern Panhandle and they couldn't even bring it up on the agenda for discussion. I'm very upset it wasn't taken up in the House," Unger said Friday.

The bill was initially sent to the House Education Committee, on which Del. Dale Manuel, D-Jefferson, serves as vice-chairman, Unger said. It was then to be sent to the House Finance Committee, where Doyle is vice chairman.

Efforts criticized

Unger said he wants to know why Manuel and Doyle did not do more to bring the bill up for discussion.

Doyle said blaming other lawmakers for the failure of the bill is "stupid."

"I resent the implication that we didn't do the very best to get it passed, because we did," he said.

Doyle said although he and Manuel supported Unger's bill, they were busy with three of their own proposals that were important to Jefferson County.

Those proposals would have allowed the county to have its own vocational school, added another clerk to the county Magistrate Court to offset growing caseloads, and made it easier for the county to implement the Local Powers Act.

The Local Powers Act allows counties to charge developers impact fees to pay for new services required because of population growth.

All three proposals passed in the House but failed in the Senate, Doyle said.

Funding new schools for growing student populations has been a common concern among Eastern Panhandle school officials.

When the 60-day legislative session began, Berkeley County School Board member Bill Sonnik said that if lawmakers couldn't find more money for school construction, the county could face a serious problem finding enough room to house all its students. Sonnik said Friday he believes the school system will be OK this year.

One reason his concern has eased is the Berkeley County Board of Education is hopeful the state School Building Authority will award money soon for another intermediate school in Martinsburg, Sonnik said. The county has already received $5.9 million from the Authority to build an intermediate school on Eagle School Road near Martinsburg.

In the meantime, Sonnik said he hopes Unger's bill will be passed in the Legislature next year.

Other legislation

After more than 10 years of work, local lawmakers were finally able to win approval for a bill requiring quarry operators to follow new rules governing how they can mine rock.

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.

The bill passed by the Legislature would establish a reclamation fund to clean up abandoned quarries.

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