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Unger wants to help school systems get needed funds

December 20, 2000

Unger wants to help school systems get needed funds



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he has a list of proposals designed to help growing school systems here get the money to build new facilities.

At least one of the proposals was introduced in the state Legislature last year, but failed.

Unger's comments came a day after Jefferson County Superintendent David W. Markoe said the state needs to come up with a new way of funding school construction projects.

This week, the state School Building Authority turned down a $20 million request from Jefferson County Schools that would have been used to build a second high school and make other improvements.

The request came after a special election in September, when county voters turned down a $39 million school construction bond to build the second high school.

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If the School Building Authority cannot fund a large request like the $20 million the school system asked for, Markoe suggested that the authority spread the large requests over a several-year period so they would be easier to administer.

Markoe said authority members have told him it would be impossible to spread funding requests over several years because the authority does not know how much money it will be receiving for school construction projects from year to year.

Unger said another reason the authority cannot spread out funding is because state law prohibits it from doing so. Unger said he plans to introduce legislation at the beginning of the year to allow the authority to spread funding out.

Unger said there is no reason a large funding request like Jefferson County's must be given all at once because most large construction projects take several years to complete.

The county may only need $5 million to get design plans started the first year, $15 million for construction in the second year and maybe $5 million for finishing work in the third year, Unger said.

Not only does it make Jefferson County's proposal more manageable, but it allows the authority to spread funding to other counties.

"You have more balls in the air, more projects are getting done," Unger said.

Another reason counties are not getting the money they need is because of tight funds, School Building Authority Director Clacy Williams said Tuesday.

Out of $180 million in school funding requests statewide, the authority only had $28 million to distribute, Williams said.

Unger said that problem should ease because the amount of money the authority distributes is expected to increase from an estimated $30 million annually to about $50 million in coming years.

Unger's other proposals include:

- changing the rating system the authority uses to assess a county's need for funding.

There are a list of items that each county school system is rated on, such as health and safety, when determining whether the county should get funding. Some of the rating areas are "weighted," meaning whatever score they get in that area is compounded to give the project a higher priority.

Unger said the problem is that growth is not an area that is weighted. He said the change could be accomplished through a policy change, instead of having to draft legislation.

David Snead, chief of architectural services for the School Building Authority, agreed the change could be made.

- changing the formula the state uses to estimate how much state funding county school systems should receive to offset student population growth.

Currently, a county's student population is counted after the first two months of a new year, which determines how much operational money a county will get the following year, Unger said. The problem is that growing counties like Jefferson and Berkeley counties often add a considerable amount of students through the year, which makes its funding amount unrealistic, Unger said. Unger is proposing that the student population count not be conducted until the 10th month of school.

State Superintendent David Stewart said he does not have a problem with the proposal.

"I don't think it will create a lot of problems. It depends how he crafts it," said Stewart, who is also president of the School Building Authority.

- creating a special pot of money to help growing counties meet school construction needs.

Legislation creating such a fund passed in the Senate last year, but died in the House of Delegates. Snead said he believes there is support for the fund, but it could be difficult to implement. A special fund set aside for growth counties may be perceived as unfair by counties that are not experiencing growth, but have deteriorating schools, Snead said.

"It's hard to legislate that kind of thing," Snead said.

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