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Recovered $3M that once funded library won't cure Kanawha schools deficit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County Board of Education members attempted to forecast the school system's financial future in a budget workshop Thursday, but the uncertainty of its funding relationship with the county's public library isn't making it easy.

"It's premature to talk about this if we don't have sufficient information on [the library's] action plan and what our obligations may or may not be, rather than prophesizing and predicting," board member Bill Raglin said. "Something has to be done sooner rather than later, given the circumstances. We can't take a stance until we have more information."

The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled last month that the school board no longer is required to provide about $3 million out of its budget to fund library operations. However, the board's five members agreed that they should keep funding library through July 1, the end of the fiscal year.

The court's decision leaves the library without stable funding for 40 percent of its total budget. Library officials have appealed to the school board, asking its members to voluntarily continue the funding.

The school board sued over the matter a decade ago.

While the details have not been decided, school board members already have expressed a desire to continue annually funding the library to some extent, with the exception of board President Pete Thaw, who said it's not the board's duty to continue support past this fiscal year.

"We've got to name a date when we stop this train. We're entitled to it. We have spent American money to get to do this, but then we keep holding it off," Thaw said. "I am more than willing to carry them until [July 1], but I would like to think four months is more than enough time. They've known this was coming for years."

Raglin responded: "I don't think we can do that.

"We all know that we are no longer going to be paying them directly from our budget at some point in time, but do we really want to pull the plug tomorrow and shut the libraries down?" Raglin said. "If given a scenario where they've done everything they can do and they're still short, where does this board stand? Are we going to support them or let them close?"

The school board will take the matter up again during a public meeting March 21. Superintendent Ron Duerring met with library officials earlier this week.

"Not a whole lot was accomplished, but we had an open discussion. They understand that, at some point, that support may not happen," Duerring said. "I believe they understand there's an urgency on them to get their house in order.

"They've truly expressed concerns and realize they need to find other places for revenues and somehow become more self-sufficient. We don't even know what their needs are -- there's nothing to work with.

"I explained to them that we're in the same boat -- we're struggling too."

In July, the school board projected a $4.5 million deficit for the 2014-15 fiscal year. During Thursday's meeting, the board announced that the 2014-15 deficit is now being projected at a lesser amount -- $2.1 million. However, that's the estimate if the school board continues to fund the library at its previous rate of about $3 million a year.

The projected budget for the same year without giving the library any funding would be much better, but still a deficit of about $477,500.

For that fiscal year, budget factors other than the library funding would keep Kanawha County Schools in the red.

"All the library funding helps to do is reduce the deficit. It doesn't cure the problem," Duerring said.

"It's still money," Thaw said. "It sure doesn't hurt."

Duerring laid out a few options and hypothetical budgets for board members to consider, saying there are two pathways: make more cuts or find more revenue.

The options that would create the most savings would eliminate teacher positions and subsequently increase the student-teacher ratio in the county and require students to pay for sports and other extracurricular activities.

"Remember that this is a forecast based on the best numbers we have right now," Duerring said. "They're only scenarios, so that when the rubber meets the road, nobody can say they didn't know it was coming and they weren't given options. My job here is to let the board know what the future brings.

"We started this two years ago, telling you we were in trouble," he added, "and we've done everything to bring revenue into the system and be responsible."

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


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