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Mezzatesta had rules altered

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 [17] 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.

But a report, which Mezzatesta requested, showed the delegate's allegations were unfounded, records show.

"I tried to explain to Jerry that they weren't playing games, but he never really bought that," Panetta said. "He thought some of the counties were lying."

Mezzatesta also told Panetta he had crafted a bill to change the way the department distributes increased enrollment money, Panetta said. The bill was never introduced.

After legislators allocated the $1.9 million, Panetta and Stewart met with Mezzatesta and his legislative staff.

Panetta said he also spoke with a Senate Education Committee staff member who also approved Mezzatesta's change, since the bill originated in the House.

At the time, Panetta also endorsed the change, and urged those who challenged the new funding rules "to discuss the matter directly with Chairman Mezzatesta for further enlightenment," according an e-mail message he sent to state officials.

Last August, Browning sent Panetta an e-mail, saying, "I did not know that legislative education committee directives could supersede state law."

Panetta responded, "It is the position of this office that the funds appropriated by the Legislature were distributed in accordance with the language presented in the bill and the intent of the Legislature as clarified by legislative leaders."

Panetta's correspondence does not reveal that he challenged Mezzatesta at any time.

"Our feeling was it should have gone to all the counties because that's what the code reads," Panetta said last week. "The legislators never rewrote the code. If they had, this would have been different. I wanted to distribute the money to all 17 counties."

In December 2002, a month before Mezzatesta changed the funding criteria, the department distributed a separate $1.4 million appropriation equally to the 17 counties with increased enrollment, as state law requires.

The 11 counties left out of the second $1.9 million allocation wound up with about 33 percent of the money they normally get for increased enrollment. Hampshire and the Eastern Panhandle counties got nearly 100 percent.

Former Hampshire schools Treasurer Dale Hays said he was worried about balancing the county's budget after the first legislative appropriation. He spoke with Mezzatesta about it.

"Jerry said he was going to get all of it, the 100 percent," recalled Hays last week. "And he did. But I didn't know about any new criteria."

In January, the department released a $2 million legislative appropriation for increased enrollment, using the new criteria Mezzatesta selected.

No additional money has been allocated for counties with a one-year spike in enrollment.

The increased enrollment money helps counties pay for extra students within the same school year. The state distributes the bulk of county school funds based on student enrollment from the previous year.

The Ethics Commission is investigating complaints that Mezzatesta improperly used his influence to solicit grants for Hampshire County schools, and that he "double-dipped" by collecting his legislative pay and school board office salary simultaneously.

Mezzatesta makes about $60,000 a year as a "community specialist/grant writer" and another $24,000 annually in legislative pay.

Earlier this year, Mezzatesta steered the bulk of a $75,000 state grant to volunteer fire departments in Hampshire County. The money originally was intended for a sheltered workshop in Romney that serves some Hampshire County special education students.

Mezzatesta promised the Ethics Commission in 1999, when he was hired as a Hampshire board office administrator, that he would not solicit state agency grants.


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