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Supreme Court upholds Kanawha library funding decision

Read the decision. CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Kanawha County Board of Education is no longer required by law to devote part of its budget to help fund the county's public library, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court ruled in favor of the school board in its decade-long funding dispute with the Kanawha County Public Library, declaring that a special act that forces the school board to use money from its budget to support the library is "unconstitutional and unenforceable."

Kanawha County Schools gives the library about 1.25 percent of its annual budget -- or $3 million, which makes up about 40 percent of the library's entire budget.

The two entities have been in and out of court disputing the matter since the school board first sued in 2003, saying the special act issued in 1957 requiring nine of the state's 55 counties to set aside money for their libraries was unfair.

In 2007, the Legislature attempted to fix the problem by adjusting the school aid formula so that tax collections in each county were considered before the state decides how much money to provide a school system, but the Kanawha board members still felt they were being treated unfairly.

The Supreme Court decision released Friday affirms Kanawha Circuit Judge Paul Zakaib Jr.'s 2011 ruling in the school board's favor.

Justices wrote that Kanawha County is treated less favorably than other counties without special acts, which creates a lack of uniformity in the state's educational financing system.

Library officials over the years have stressed the importance of library services in the role of public education.

"Obviously, if you lose 40 percent of your funding when you're running an institution that's as widespread and significant as the library, it's going to have an impact," said Mike Albert, president of the library's board of directors. "This is a major disappointment, and we're going to have to assess where we are and consider our future and where we go from here."

Attorneys for the library had warned legislators that the loss of funding from the school board would cause a "striking blow to the state due to the sheer size of the population this library directly serves," according to the opinion.

"It's sad. We have generally been a tremendous assist to the Board of Education in a number of ways, and we can demonstrate that, but that's not the thrust of this opinion. It turned on the statute," Albert said. "We knew the funding was at risk, and we have been doing what we can to be conscious of that in making decisions. Everything we've done has been viewed from that spectrum.

"Now we have to sit down and decide what this means to us and what approach we can take going forward with current operations and building funds."

The library has been working on plans to build a new building since 2002, and launched a campaign to raise $37 million for the additional branch. Since the campaign launched in 2006, the library has raised $18.4 million, mostly from private donations.

The Board of Education has been facing financial hardships of its own. Board members recently projected a $4.5 million deficit for the 2014 budget.

"This changes the whole picture," said board president Pete Thaw. "No longer does the library board have a parasitic relationship with us."

Thaw said the $3 million the board usually divvies out for the library each year will be put toward bettering the county's public schools.

"It will now be going back into the classrooms and into education -- not to pay salaries at the library," Thaw said. "They've been doing this to us for 56 years, and it's finally over."

Justices voted 4-1 to uphold Zakaib's decision. Justice Margaret Workman wrote the opinion, and was joined by Menis Ketchum, Allen Loughry and Robin Jean Davis. Chief Justice Brent Benjamin dissented.

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


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