Boone school board makes state-ordered cuts to avoid takeover

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

MADISON, W.Va. — Boone County school board members voted today to finally make severe cuts to their employees’ pay and benefits, a move that will seemingly avert the state Board of Education takeover that was automatically set to take effect today if the board refused to make the state-ordered cuts a third time.

The unanimous vote, taken before an audience of about 250 people in the gymnasium of Scott High School, means Boone’s public school employees, previously second only to Putnam County in West Virginia for average worker pay, will immediately lose thousands of dollars in annual pay along with their employer-paid dental and vision insurance coverage. The governor-appointed state school board had threatened to make the cuts anyway if the locally elected Boone board members’ continued refusal to comply led it to take power over the school system away from them.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson has said the reduction of the county supplement paid to all Boone professional and service employees would mean a $3,800 to $4,000 salary cut per professional employee, including teachers and school administrators, and a $3,650 to $3,850 salary cut per service employee, including custodians and bus drivers. She said that reduction would bring Boone down to the state-minimum salaries that about 25 other counties pay.

At the urging of all three major Mountain State education unions, Boone’s board had unanimously refused to make the cuts twice in the last three weeks.
Boone’s board voted months ago to close three elementary schools and cut 80 positions in order to slash expenses for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which started July 1.

Until shortly before July 1, public attention was focused on whether the school system would make it through the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year, during which Jeff Huffman, a Boone assistant superintendent at the time who has since become superintendent, said the school district experienced an unexpected $6.9 million revenue loss.

He said that loss represented 17 percent of the county’s operating budget. The drop was largely blamed on coal company bankruptcies and the companies moving their equipment, which provides personal property taxes, out of the county.

Last month, state lawmakers and the governor gave the school system an extra $2.2 million to help pay employees through the June 30 end of the 2015-16 fiscal year. But at a special Boone board meeting on that date, the orders from state Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to make the severe cuts were revealed.

Boone board members unanimously refused to follow the orders at that meeting. Boone officials and the education department, which Martirano leads and the state school board oversees, pointed fingers at each other over why the orders and the issues with the 2016-17 fiscal year budget were publicly revealed so late — employees first read about them in packets handed out at that June 30 meeting.

The education department maintained that the budget Boone had submitted for approval — the department said it received it May 31 — would’ve caused the school system to run out of money to pay obligations as early as April or May of 2017. An education department review concluded that the budget both undershot and overshot expected revenue and expenses for various items, in some cases by hundreds of thousands of dollars,

Martirano wrote that the “review of the proposed budget found several line items which were either unrealistic, unattainable or missing altogether, which would have resulted in a significant increase in the deficit.” The department estimated the budget would’ve increased a projected 2015-16 ending deficit of $4.6 million by a further $1.7 million, and Huffman said budgeting mistakes had been made.

After the first refusal to follow his orders, Martirano gave Boone’s board until July 8 to submit a “fiscally sufficient” budget. He issued new directives, but removed an order for Boone to cut all of its positions over what the state school aid funding formula provides money for.

Again, Boone board members unanimously refused to follow the orders, as the three education unions urged them to do.

But on Thursday, the state school board, with only one of its nine voting members voicing his disapproval, approved a state takeover of Boone’s school system that would take effect unless Boone fixed its budget by the end of today. Martirano said he had a moral and legal obligation to ensure that Boone’s budget provided enough money to keep students in school for the state-required 180 separate days of instruction and pay teachers for their employment terms.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1254, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.