School takeovers coming?
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education is cracking down on several county school systems facing major financial struggles, fearing more state takeovers on the horizon.
"The problem is when the adults get it wrong, the kids are the ones who suffer," said board member Lloyd Jackson. "Ultimately, this hurts everyone."
Braxton, Calhoun, Mason, Monroe and Preston counties have budget deficits considered critical by state code, while Clay, Pendleton and Webster counties are experiencing more "casual" deficits.
State board members voted unanimously at a regular meeting on Wednesday to approve strategic plans to eliminate those deficits, saying financial problems are signs of greater issues to come.
The state has already taken over control of four county school systems, with two also operating under conditional approval status.
"This is the number-one symptom of counties you have to take over. You've got to catch these things quickly because if you let them get out of control, get ready to take them over because this is where it starts," Jackson said.
As of June, Preston County was $2.4 million in the red, while Clay and Calhoun counties had deficits of more than half a million.
At the Department of Education's request, each county board has submitted a detailed action plan with ways they have cut down on spending and plan to continue saving money.
The state's intervention will continue to increase in county school systems that face financial hardships, as state officials will perform monthly analyses and provide recommendations about how to reduce expenditures, according to Joe Panetta, superintendent of finance for the Department of Education.
"We are taking a more active role in providing assistance and monitoring counties' financial status," he said. "These are things we haven't required in the past."
Employing too many staff members is a central problem with the counties at risk, Panetta said, especially for counties without an excess levy to offer additional funding for schools.
Board members voiced fears that their recommendations won't suffice if county administrators don't enforce them. They also agreed that frequent follow-up visits to counties at risk are crucial.
"There are patterns here that scare you -- like local boards' reluctance to take recommendations to cut personnel," said state Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares. "But, it's a catch-22. It's a difficult thing to do. It really takes a real taskmaster with a lot of attention."
Also at Wednesday's meeting, Lynn Boyer, superintendent of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, requested that decisions about whether to move the Romney-based schools to a more central location be postponed until next January.
Boyer had requested about $4.8 million earlier this year to conduct major renovations to the school's campus, and received a $1 million "3 percent grant" from the School Building Authority in December to help complete the project.
But in order to receive the SBA grant funding, the Schools for the Deaf and Blind must make up the difference.
Boyer called on the state Board of Education last month to appropriate $3.4 million for the schools as part of its legislative improvement package. But the board tabled the decision, inquiring about a potential new location for the school and asking Boyer to come back with more information.
"This is not something to be taken lightly. It's better to take the time and make the adjustments, and make the repairs and renovations we can with the money the state does authorize for us from their general fund, than to make the wrong decision," Boyer said. "The point of taking another 11 months is to come to a conclusion.
"Whether the SBA will continue to keep the money that they've allotted for us in a holding pattern, I don't know," she said.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.