House Education Committee Chairman Jerry Mezzatesta privately ordered the Department of Education's finance director to change the way the agency distributes money to counties with student enrollment increases, according to records and interviews with state officials.
The change prompted the department to withhold more than $679,000 from 11 counties last year while diverting some of those funds to the Hampshire County school system where Mezzatesta works as a central office administrator, a Sunday Gazette-Mail review found.
West Virginia schools Finance Director Joe Panetta protested the funding change, but ultimately carried out Mezzatesta's directive.
"I told Jerry it should be distributed to all  counties according to state code, but my concerns fell on deaf ears," Panetta said last week. "Do I think it's fair? No. They're cheating 11 counties."
State schools Superintendent David Stewart and Gov. Bob Wise were alerted to the new criteria for distributing money to county school systems with enrollment spikes, records show, but they did not interfere.
Legislators appropriated $1.9 million for school enrollment increases in March 2003.
Most lawmakers assumed the money would be distributed equally to counties with an enrollment increase the same year - as state law requires and as it has been done for at least 30 years.
Instead, Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, directed Panetta to give the money only to counties that had enrollment increases "three out of the past five years."
Legislators never approved the new criteria.
"I'm amazed and astounded those are the new rules we follow," said Delegate Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, who started to raise questions about the appropriation last year. "How can that directive stand?"
Mezzatesta could not be reached to comment on this report, despite repeated attempts.
Panetta said he believes he could not legally stop Mezzatesta, since the powerful delegate tweaked the wording on the $1.9 million appropriation to say "traditional increased enrollment." In previous years, legislators allocated such money under a budget line titled "increased enrollment."
Legislators never defined "traditional increased enrollment" in the budget bill.
Mezzatesta selected the new funding method on his own after requiring Panetta and his staff to generate several reports, which calculated increased enrollment funding based on multiple scenarios, Panetta said.
Hampshire County schools met one of those scenarios - the three-out-of-five-year model, thanks to a six-student increase five years ago.
Under the new formula, Putnam County schools, which had student enrollment increases two of the past five years, lost more than $46,000.
Mercer County schools were shortchanged $137,000. Monroe County schools lost more than $112,000 and nearly went into deficit.
"I called the other 11 superintendents about this, but nobody wanted to take on Jerry," said Monroe Superintendent Lyn Guy, who later wrote a letter to Wise.
Meanwhile, six Eastern Panhandle counties, including Hampshire, collected the bulk of the $1.9 million. Berkeley County got an extra $608,000, and finished the year with a $1.5 million surplus.
Hampshire got $80,000 more than it would have if the Department of Education had distributed the money, as the law requires.
In January 2003, Mezzatesta complained to Panetta about the 17 counties scheduled to receive additional money for increased enrollment. Mezzatesta alleged that some counties were "padding" enrollment numbers by counting 4-year-old preschool children in the mix, Panetta said.