School employees say funding discrepancies persist

HAMLIN (AP) — Thirty years after a judge ordered West Virginia to overhaul public education funding, employees of the school system at the heart of the case say they’ve seen little progress.

In May 1982, Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht declared the system of financing public schools unconstitutional. He ordered an overhaul of the education system, creation of measurable performance standards and a mechanism to equalize educational opportunities between rich and poor counties.

The ruling stemmed from a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Janet Pauley, a mother of five who attended a PTA meeting in Lincoln County and was appalled to find a crumbling four-room elementary school with broken windows, broken chairs and an open sewer running through the playground. The decision led to creation of the state School Building Authority to oversee major construction projects and the Office of Education Performance Audits to monitor schools’ progress. It also tweaked the school aid funding formula and promoted equalization of teacher pay.

Lincoln County schools maintenance director Dana Smith, who has worked for the school system since the year after the landmark decision, said that while the case probably made possible the construction of the $30 million consolidated Lincoln County High School, little else has changed.

“Did the Recht decision equalize funding for us? No, it didn’t,” Smith told the Charleston Gazette. “We lose people all the time to Cabell, Boone, Kanawha, Putnam — they all pay more. We’re surrounded by people who’ve got more money than we’ve got. Boone and Logan have their coal, Cabell’s got all kinds of industry, and we’ve got the school system. That’s our biggest employer in this county _ the school system.”

Birdie Gandy, treasurer of Lincoln County schools and a longtime school system employee, agreed.

“I don’t really know anything that we have benefited from on the Recht decision, directly,” Gandy said. “I can’t point to anything and say, `This is a result of the Recht decision.’”

Smith said Lincoln County was home to three of the four high schools that the state said were deteriorating.

“We’ve converted them to middle schools, but they’re the same buildings,” Smith said. “We’ve still got teachers leaving the county because they can get a pay raise somewhere else. We just don’t have the tax base here, so we don’t have the educational opportunities.”

Lincoln was short 13 full-time teachers this year. Teacher pay in the county is $900 below the state average, and nearly every surrounding county pays more. Putnam County pays $3,951 more than Lincoln, and Kanawha County pays $2,231 more.

These funding discrepancies are fueled by local excess levies — a tax on property that goes beyond the state school funding formula, said Dave Mohr, a senior policy analyst for the West Virginia House of Delegates Education Committee. Many counties rely on excess or special levies to fund teacher salaries and basic education needs, such as heating and cooling system repairs. In most cases, there is nothing special or extra about what the funds cover — counties consistently use excess levies as funding streams for essentials.

“Excess levies were not included in the school funding formula, which was a big issue in the case,” Mohr said. “Excess levies are considered something that counties decide on their own.”

The Recht decision advocated for a statewide excess levy to try to equalize funding, but that proposal proved politically unfeasible and was shot down.

Kenna Seal, former director of the Office of Education Performance Audits, doesn’t focus so much on financing of schools as on what schools do with the resources they have. He said he saw major changes in Lincoln County because of the Recht decision.

“They’re no longer on the bottom of the totem pole,” Seal said. “They’ve got high-quality schools, and they’ve got someone monitoring them to make sure they’ve got high-quality schools. I know it’s significantly better. Look at the test scores, look at the school facilities — this is the Recht decision coming to fruition.”

The OEPA audited Lincoln County’s school system in 1999 and found deficiencies in more than 200 areas, including student performance, school curriculum, facilities, accounting practices and hiring practices. The school system was declared to be in a state of emergency when the state Department of Education took it over in 2000.

Twelve years later, Lincoln County continues to suffer from low test scores, but there has been a general upward arc, Seal said. Curriculum has improved. Facilities have gotten better. Hiring discrepancies are a rarity. But there’s a long way to go.

In 2011, only 39 percent of the 2,240 students in Lincoln County were proficient in reading, according to state Department of Education data. That was below the statewide average of 47 percent proficiency. In math, only 35 percent of the county’s students were proficient — 8 percentage points below the state average.

Smith, who has two sons in the Lincoln County school system, views the modest improvements against the backdrop of what could have been had the Recht decision been fully implemented and financed.

“Equalizing the system’s a tough thing to do, but we were hoping that more would have been done,” he said.

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