Kanawha school board, library dispute funding in Supreme Court
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A special act that requires the Kanawha County Board of Education to designate money in its yearly budget to fund the county's public library is unfair and unconstitutional, an attorney representing the school board told the state Supreme Court of Appeals Wednesday.
Because of a special act passed at the urging of Kanawha County legislators in the 1950s, the Kanawha County school board is required by law to set aside about $3 million a year, or 1.25 percent of its annual education budget, for the Kanawha County Public Library.
Library officials have said that the school system's contribution makes up about 40 percent of the library's annual budget.
Eight other school systems in West Virginia's 55 counties also are required to give part of their budgets to libraries.
A decade ago, Kanawha school board members filed a lawsuit, saying the law was unfair. Since then, the library and the school board have been in and out of court disputing the matter.
In 2006, the Legislature tried to fix the problem by adjusting the school aid formula so that it takes into account portions of a county's property tax collections that may be required to go to libraries. But, by doing so, all counties -- not just the several that must fund libraries -- received more education spending from the state, leaving the Kanawha County board still unsatisfied.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Paul Zabaib Jr. agreed with the school board in 2011. The library appealed to the state Supreme Court.
"This creates a lack of uniformity in the state's educational financial system. The non-special act counties don't have to give [funding] to the library -- they can give all of it to their classrooms," Al Sebok, a Charleston attorney representing the Kanawha school board, told Supreme Court justices on Wednesday morning.
Justice Menis Ketchum questioned the impact of ending board funding, which makes up about 40 percent of the library's budget, would have on students who are required to use library resources for class and in schools where libraries are located on campus.
Sebok admitted that there is a correlation between libraries and education, but that there has been no justification cited for "the inequality" shown to the nine counties required to give up funding.
Charleston attorney Christopher Winton, representing the library, told the court that the Board of Education should help fund the library because it is just that: a key component of a child's education.
"Libraries serve a legitimate school purpose. If the tax levies under the state school aid formula are to be spent on education, and if libraries are a part of the education system, then there's no lack of uniformity," Winton said.
Kelli Talbott, a senior deputy for the attorney general's office representing the state Board of Education and the superintendent of schools, sided with the library on Wednesday, saying libraries have "a longstanding function as a component of education."
"There isn't any portion of the school board's funds being diverted to non-school purposes because libraries are part of the delivery of education," she said.
The Kanawha school board also has the option of suggesting an excess levy for library funding, contingent on the public's vote, that would separate the school and library budgets, attorneys said Wednesday.
Kanawha County Board of Education President Pete Thaw said he supports that idea.
"I'm not against libraries, but why don't they operate their own business instead of on the backs of schoolchildren? It's killing us," Thaw said. "Our case is the same today as it was years ago. The money that's taken from people in the name of education ought to be used for education. If the library wants operating money, they should go ahead and have a levy of their own. And if people want to support that, that's fine."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.