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Kanawha school board members wonder if levy cap was right move

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Members of the Kanawha County Board of Education are questioning whether they made the right decision to place a revenue cap on the excess levy last year, as they consider budget cuts to prepare for a $4.5 million deficit on the horizon.

Kanawha is the only county in West Virginia with a cap on its excess levy -- a property tax to fund schools beyond the state's school-aid funding formula. The cap prevents the board from collecting more than about $44 million each year to go toward textbooks, construction, salaries and other needs.

"Most of the counties in West Virginia are pulling all these additional revenues and can take that money and move their students forward. We can't. We're capped. We can only take so much, so that limits what we can do," said superintendent Ron Duerring.

The projected $4.5 million deficit for the 2014 budget could grow to $7 million by 2018, according to Duerring.

In a special meeting on Monday, Duerring laid out possible scenarios for cutbacks to recover that funding, but stressed they were merely hypothetical.

Scenarios included forcing schools to pay for their own transportation and extra curricular activities and cutting back on reading mentors, summer classes and other programs that aren't required.

Other suggestions included upping the student-to-teacher ratio and cutting back on maintenance to school buildings and professional development for teachers.

"None of it may get cut, some of it may get cut. We don't know. None of it is written in stone," Duerring said.

But board member Robin Rector said the real issue is the cap on the excess levy, calling it "the elephant in the room" on Monday.

"When we did it that day, there were warnings. We were told that day there could be problems on the horizon," she said.

Board member Becky Jordon said the board might have made the wrong decision when it voted 4-0 last January to give voters the chance to approve a five-year cap on the levy.

"The people did vote, but that's because the board they elected gave it to them because at the time, we thought it was right. Four of us are standing up and saying we might have made a mistake, and we're willing to say maybe we should do something different," Jordon said. "We're the ones that took it to them, and now we're looking at it again."

Board of Education president Pete Thaw continued to stand strong behind the cap, saying the taxpayers would be "foolish" to vote for it to be removed.

"The administration and the board members, to my knowledge, are very interested in doing away with the cap. But, the people have to understand they've finally got control of their own fate. You've got control of your own levy," he said. "If you ever lose it, it's going to be tough to get it back."

Mike Kelley, principal at Herbert Hoover, spoke on behalf of several Kanawha County high school principals present at Monday's meeting.

"We're here because it's an issue that has the potential to have a deep impact on our kids. It's wise to take the approach you're taking and be proactive... but the loss of those things would be catastrophic to our children," Kelley told the board about the proposed budget cuts. "Dr. Duerring has never been a superintendent that has cried wolf over the budget. There are places where educators whose solution to every problem is more money. He has never been that type of educator. If the man tells you there is danger on the horizon and something needs to be done, it's wise to heed that warning."

Josh Hanson, head of PTO at Point Harmony Elementary, questioned whether the problem was the system as a whole and offered to do what he could as a parent to turn the budget around.

"If we have great teachers, great principals, great students, then what's the problem? It's got to be the system. The thing that concerns me most is that it seems like we're just trying to maintain where we're at -- we're only working to find $5 million to stay where we are," he said. "I don't understand the whole levy thing."

Board member Bill Raglin urged that the board work harder to define more clearly the possible cuts to the budget instead of the general, hypothetical scenarios.

"We talked at the time that we set the cap about some issues that might happen, and it appears some of them are going to happen. The public ought to know what the options are and what the results might be. We need to be very honest and upfront about it," he said. "There has to be a reason to why within the first year of setting a cap, we're going to be millions in the hole."

The board will meet again Feb. 21 at 6 p.m.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.

 


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