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Economy could affect schools' wish list

December 27, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny P. Arvon would like school districts to have more control over spending, but the economy weighs heavily on this and other legislative wishes for 2009.

"Quite frankly, with the state of the economy, my focus will be -- not losing what we have ..." Arvon said of previously successful legislative efforts that helped growth counties with enrollment and teacher recruitment.

What counties have now

Of the taxes now paid by Berkeley County property owners for education, the county's board of education only has flexibility in spending 10 percent of it.

The other 90 percent goes to state coffers, and a portion then is channeled back to Berkeley County through a complex school funding formula based on enrollment and other factors.

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"We will continue to work on local share money so decisions can be made locally on how to spend that money," Arvon said.

Up until 2007, county school districts only had control over spending 2 percent of the money, which Eastern Panhandle lawmakers eyed for helping their schools with teacher recruitment and retention.

Del. Walter Duke, who had co-sponsored legislation to increase the funding amount under local control to 30 percent before gaining 8 percent in the last two years, said Friday he will push for additional flexibility in the House Education Committee.

Berkeley County also meets the definition of a growth county, triggering additional money for regular increases in enrollment. State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said Friday that he doesn't believe there is a "sunset," or expiration, to the legislation.

What counties need

While spending flexibility is important, Duke said he hopes to help Eastern Panhandle school districts by getting legislation through that would channel money back to the area for educating students who speak English as a second language.

School districts in West Virginia receive a limited amount of federal funding for students with limited English proficiency, but unlike a number of other states, West Virginia provides no funding, Duke said.

In August, members of an interim legislative committee reviewed draft legislation that proposed $274 in state funding per student to support "limited English proficient" programs for more than 2,300 students in West Virginia, and Duke said Friday that many of them are in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.

Unger said he could see local control of spending increased to 15 percent, but said more "visionary" change needs to take root in the classroom. Unger said his focus in the upcoming session will be to advance the 21st Century learning skills initiative, technology in classrooms and policy-driven legislation to stimulate students to become inventors, etc.

"We need to educate people on how to think," Unger said. "The world is changing and we need to be able to respond to it."

Assessment for the future

While not shaped into a "political football" yet, the findings of an equity committee formed to gather data about the school district's profile and state funding levels eventually will become a figurative pigskin, said Berkeley County Board of Education member Patrick Murphy, who chairs a panel of about 14 members.

"We want to get the data and examine where we are in Berkeley County and where we are perceived to be in Charleston," Murphy said of the committee's mission.

While not meeting on a regular basis, Murphy said the committee has heard reports on the school district's pre-kindergarten program, the poverty rate of the community and the library funding issue.

"There's an impression that we're wealthy whiners, and we're finding out we have a lot of poor children in our system," Murphy said.

Murphy said the committee's members are not rushing to meet a deadline, but he hopes to have a report on the panel's findings by next spring.

"If we do an inaccurate job then we're only hurting the people we're trying to help," Murphy said.

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