Logan County School Board spent surplus, faces budget cuts

Hoppy’s Commentary
School systems across the state have been forced to belt-tighten because of the drop in tax collections stemming from the decline of the coal industry. The Logan County Board of Education is the latest to confront budget shortfalls that will force layoffs.

Tax revenue for Logan County schools have declined steadily over the last several, dropping from $23.4 million in 2015 to $20.5 million last year.

Board President Paul Hardesty, who took office in the middle of last year, believes the school system ignored the impacts of the slowdown and engaged in wasteful spending.

Hardesty made a PowerPoint presentation to the Board and the public last night documenting what he believes were missed opportunities for the school system to save money.

For example, Hardesty referenced a memo from Board Treasurer John Brennan to the Board on August 13, 2015 detailing how the county was rapidly spending down its reserves with everything from $5.4 million for a building addition and turf for an athletic field to $207,000 for an optional Junior ROTC program with no federal matching dollars.

“As you can see, it doesn’t take long to spend $10 million,” Brennan said in his memo.

In fact, in just three years the Logan County school system has spent nearly all of a $23 million dollar surplus, which Hardesty says was one of the highest cash reserves of any county school board in the state in 2014.

Hardesty says there were other warnings, like a December 2015 letter to county school systems from State Board of Education Chief Financial Officer Joseph Panetta advising boards to “strive to reduce expenditures.”

Logan County also received notice last June that the state tax division was writing off $4 million in uncollectible taxes due to bankruptcies that would result in a loss of $2.6 million to the county school system.

However, Hardesty maintains Logan County kept on hiring. He says since 2013, the county has gone from 27 positions more than the state school aid funding formula allows to approximately 90, even as enrollment has continued to decline and tax collections have dropped.

Meanwhile, questions continue to swirl about purchases by former Logan County School Superintendent Phyllis Doty, including items that turned up at a private wedding. “We can’t spend taxpayer dollars to subsidize a private wedding,” Hardesty said when the story surfaced last year.

​So now the school county board has to make real cuts. Hardesty proposes eliminating approximately 70 professional and service positions as well as the Junior ROTC program.

The planned JROTC cut has prompted considerable opposition, including Major Richard Ojeda who runs the program at Chapmanville Regional High School. Ojeda also happens to be a state Senator representing Logan County, so he has some clout. Also, students supporting JROTC have started a petition drive.

A number of Logan County students and parents are no doubt upset by the planned cuts, but Hardesty says the Board has no choice but to make tough decisions to balance the budget while hopefully bringing more transparency to the process.

“I’m going to run it by the book,” he said.