School funding formula hard on growth districts

November 14, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.VA. - On television, there are ads for a cell phone company in which people with good cellular coverage have a number of blue bars above their heads, while people with poor coverage have few bars.

In schools in the Eastern Panhandle, there are students with imaginary dollar signs above their heads - meaning the state has given counties money for their educational needs.

There are more than 1,000 total students in Berkeley and Jefferson counties for whom funding will not be awarded.

There's no imaginary dollar sign in sight.

Under the system in which West Virginia disperses funding to county boards of education, growing counties such as Berkeley and Jefferson find themselves shortchanged.


"My question has always been if someone could tell me why we're paying for children that don't exist in most of the counties in West Virginia and we're not paying for kids that are actually sitting in classrooms in growth counties. How do you justify that?" Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny Arvon asked.

Funding is awarded based on each county's prior year's enrollment. That means Berkeley County will be awarded funding for the number of students it had in October of last year - 14,274.

The problem, Arvon said, is the county this year has 15,016 students. Not one penny has been received to pay for the needs of the extra 742 students.

"The state will fund Berkeley County for 14,274 (students) and then what growth counties have to do ... we have to lobby not only the Legislature, but we also have to ask the state superintendent to submit a letter to the governor for appropriations to fund the increased enrollment," Arvon said.

This year, the difference between what Berkeley County will receive and what is needed is $2.5 million. More than $3,300 is awarded per student.

The check is not in the mail. Arvon said the county still is owed $340,000 for new students from the 2002 school year.

In the minority

Although the figures are not as high, a similar situation exists in Jefferson County. There, the county will not receive funding for 280 new students, Superintendent R. Steven Nichols said.

Next year, Nichols expects enrollment to increase by 400 students - who also will not be funded until the following year.

"You're always playing catch-up," Nichols said.

School systems that are losing students do not want to alter the funding formula because they do not want the amount of money they receive to decrease, Arvon and Nichols said.

"In a county that lost 200 students, they will be paid for 200 students that don't even exist," Arvon said.

That's the situation for most counties in the state.

"They outnumber us," Nichols said.

From 1990 to 2003, only eight counties saw an increase in student populations. The state's other 47 counties lost students, according to a chart in Arvon's office.

During that 13-year period, Berkeley County grew the most, adding 3,777 new students. Jefferson County was second with 1,078 new students.

Putnam, Hampshire, Hardy, Morgan, Monagalia and Grant counties followed. Grant had the smallest increase - adding 51 new students during the 13-year period.

Arvon said he understands the heartaches school personnel in poorer counties face, but doesn't believe growing counties should suffer.

"When you have actual kids sitting in your classrooms, we should be paid and there's no excuse for us not to be paid," Arvon said.

The funding is used to hire new teachers required to handle the increased enrollment, add classrooms, pay for busing, cooks and instructional materials, and other needs, both superintendents said.

A legislative approach

Three legislators from the Eastern Panhandle are hopeful the funding formula can be changed.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, is a six-year member of both the Senate's education and finance committees. He expects a bipartisan committee made up of members of the Senate and House of Delegates to be formed to examine the issue.

Officials with West Virginia University and Marshall University have been approached to do research on the matter and a bill could be introduced in 2006, he said.

Like with the market, Unger believes each county should project its growth or decline in enrollment. Funding would be awarded at the beginning of each school year based on those numbers, with adjustments made if needed, he said.

The process would be similar to the governor and legislators creating a budget based on projected revenue and costs.

"If we can do it for our budget, we can do it for our boards of education," Unger said. "It's not foreign to us."

If legislation is not passed revising the formula, Unger expects the matter to end up in court.

"It's an equality issue," he said. "It's not that we're asking for anything more than our fair share."

Del. Bob Tabb said he hopes to introduce a bill in the next regular legislative session, scheduled to begin in February, that would fund counties based on their current enrollments.

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