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W.Va. lawmakers target education

February 18, 2001

W.Va. lawmakers target education



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Increasing funding for public education in the Eastern Panhandle will continue to dominate local lawmakers' efforts in the West Virginia Legislature, which started its 60-day session last week.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he will again push for development of a separate pot of money for growing counties to help them build new schools.

The proposal passed the Senate last year but died in the House of Delegates. Last year's proposal would have set aside at least $3 million in the first year of its existence.

Unger said he also wants to make it possible for the state School Building Authority to spread out funding it gives to counties to build new schools. This past year, the Jefferson County Board of Education requested $20 million from the authority, which only had $28 million to distribute statewide.

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Jefferson County was rejected for the funding.

It would be more manageable if funding from the authority could be spread over several years, Unger said.

That way, local school districts would have a better chance of getting funding, school officials said.

Currently, the authority is prohibited from spreading funding over a period of years.

In Berkeley County, school and economic development officials have stressed the need of having enough funding to build schools for the growing county. A study, recently completed by the school system, said at least $93 million will be needed to construct enough schools in the county over the next 10 years.

During that time period, the student population is expected to increase by 3,500 students, the study said.

Jefferson County only has one high school. That school is over capacity and also is in need of repairs.

"We have a crisis in the Eastern Panhandle and we need to do everything possible to solve this problem. We need to build schools immediately," said Unger.

There are a number of ways lawmakers are looking at funding education this year.

Four Eastern Panhandle lawmakers say they will pursue a proposal to earmark up to $3 million from slot machine revenue from the Charles Town Races for construction of new schools in Jefferson County. And Gov. Bob Wise wants to fund a $12 million scholarship program by regulating video poker machines in the state.

Although the idea of setting aside $3 million of slot-machine revenue for new schools in Jefferson County is getting wide support, lawmakers said it could be difficult to get approval for the idea because state finances are tight.

The state's economy is only growing at a rate of about 2 to 3 percent, compared to other states that are seeing an increase of up to 5 percent, said state Del. Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley.

"To try to get the rest of the state to understand our problems are as complicated as theirs is not always easy to do," Douglas said, adding that formulating the state budget will absorb most of the time of lawmakers.

Other local issues to be pursued in the Legislature include:

- "Locality pay." Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, and other lawmakers say they want a higher level of pay for teachers and other state workers to help them deal with a higher cost of living here. Some legislators said the idea may be tough to sell in other parts of the state since they would not be getting the higher salary.

- Altering language in the Local Powers Act to make it easier for counties, especially Jefferson County, to impose impact fees. Impact fees are fees collected from developers to pay for increased public services needed because of growth.

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