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Letters to the Editor 1/7

January 08, 2001

Letters to the Editor 1/7



Herald editorial on school funding issue got it wrong



To the editor:

The Herald editorializes (Dec. 26 "Getting State School Aid Will Require a Local Match") that the West Virginia School Building Authority "has been up-front since May" regarding the conditions under which Jefferson County can expect funds to aid in building a second high school. Not so; it has been years since the School Building Authority has been "up front" about anything.

Soon after Jefferson County school officials announced they were going to ask the SBA for $4 million to aid a project of $39 million, it became painfully obvious to anyone listening that the voters were dubious. For reasons we'll discuss shortly (which the Herald ignored in its editorial), the bond issue was in difficulty as it left the starting gate.

Del. Dale Manuel and I informed Clacy Williams, executive director of the School Building Authority, of this problem. We told him he needed to double, at least, the amount the SBA was willing to fork over. He said $8 million was too much, but that we could announce publicly that the SBA would, in fact, put up $6 million, should the bond issue pass. We joyfully did just that.

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Imagine our surprise when Williams, a week or so before the election, told a public meeting in Jefferson County that citizens should not count on even the $4 million! Furthermore, spake he, Jefferson County would have a better chance of getting money if the bond issue were defeated! More money, it seems goes to greater "need."

Talk about sabotaging an effort. Williams' performance had much to do with the defeat of this bond issue. If this is being "up front," I'd hate to see him being sneaky!

I'm convinced that Williams, due to the demographics of most West Virginia counties, does not want any county adding high schools (even a growing one). I think he fears that many shrinking counties, faced with the necessity of consolidating schools, will look at Jefferson County and say, "See, you let THEM have smaller high schools."

This is, of course, nonsense. One can argue the merits of letting a county losing population keeping its existing high schools (each getting smaller), or consolidate. It's entirely different with a growing county. At some point a high school is too large by just about anybody's standards. Such is now the case with Jefferson High, and most Jefferson Countians believe that, despite failure of the recent bond issue.

That bond issue lost because voters are mad that the County Commission has not passed impact fees, so that a greater share of constructing the school would have been borne by those who have moved here in the past six years (six years is the limit on the time impact fees can be held before they are spent on capital improvements). And voters are angry that money from the video lottery machines at the Charles Town Races does not go to local schools. Lots of that money goes to education, but it goes to Charleston, to be divided among all 55 school districts.

This is, in fact, how property taxes are divvied up. The portion for schools (two-thirds) is sent to Charleston, and given back to the local school boards on an equal dollar-per-student basis. This property tax money is less than half of the money that comes to the school board.- The rest is from other taxes that go into the state's General Revenue Fund.

The remaining third of the property tax money is given to the County Commission to fund law enforcement, parks, public health and the many and varied other programs which are the County Commission's responsibility. Some argue it is unconstitutional for county commissions to give money to school boards. I think that's stretching it, but it makes no difference. No county commission in our state has enough money to fund the programs for which it is constitutionally responsible, let alone for ends (noble though they be, like schools) for which they are not responsible.

All this is the result of the infamous "Recht" court decision of 1982, which holds that the state constitution demands "equal dollars in" for every student. The courts are acting as if they might revise that. I dearly hope so. Even factors like the differences in housing costs from one area to another have been, up to now, off limits for consideration.

Yes, some people didn't want their taxes raised. But, that's always a factor, and Jefferson County had never, until this year, failed to approve a school bond. And some people like the single county high school, which probably made sense when we had only 20,000 in the county. Now, we're more than double that, and many folks like the county's older, and longer, tradition of three high schools.

The only time the School Building Authority ever gave Jefferson County any money was the $10.6 million the legislature ordered it to cough up six years ago. Without that "legislative interference" (as the School Building Authority put it), Jefferson County would never have gotten a penny.

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