Possible Boone schools takeover this week

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

The West Virginia Board of Education could vote this week to take over Boone County’s public school system, now that Boone’s board has twice refused the state schools superintendent’s orders to make severe employee pay and benefit cuts and submit a “fiscally sufficient” budget for this fiscal and school year.

The meeting is set for 10 a.m. Wednesday in Room 353 of Building 6 of the Capitol Complex in Charleston, after an earlier meeting on the board’s upcoming A-F grading system that starts at 9 a.m.

The meeting could continue Thursday at 9 a.m. if the agenda isn’t finished Wednesday, although board staff members said they expect the Boone issues to come up early Wednesday. They said they didn’t know what state Superintendent Michael Martirano will suggest the state board do.

It was unclear Monday how state board members would vote on taking power over a third school system away from its locally elected board. The state board is a group of nine voting members who are appointed by the governor to nine-year terms and can be reappointed. There also are several nonvoting members.
State board members already receive flak for controversies in the two school systems they already control parts of, Gilmer County and Fayette County. Fayette residents drive to Charleston to complain at about every meeting.

Only one state board member, Tom Campbell of Greenbrier County, told the Gazette-Mail on Monday that he doesn’t support a state takeover at this time. Of the nine voting members, President Mike Green of Monongalia County, Secretary Tina Combs of Berkeley County, member Scott Rotruck of Monongalia County and member Beverly Kingery of Kanawha County did not return requests for comment Monday.

Green did say in a voicemail last week, on the day Boone’s board again refused to make cuts, that he expects the education department to brief members on the options and the situation.

“The only way I’d vote for it is if there’s a drastic change in the information we have,” said Campbell, who chairs the board’s Finance Committee. He said he wasn’t happy being caught “completely off guard” by the June 29 notification he’d received about Martirano’s first orders to Boone.

That notification was two days before the 2016-17 fiscal year started, for which Boone still doesn’t have a state-approved budget, and one day before the Boone board was supposed to vote on the directives.

The public learned about the directives at that June 30 meeting, with employees in the audience reading through papers showing Martirano’s orders to cut their pay and benefits. Education department officials, at a June 9 meeting of the state board’s Finance Committee, gave no indication that the orders were coming, although Amy Willard, the executive director of the education department’s Office of School Finance who was at the finance committee meeting, said she didn’t know about the full extent of errors in Boone’s submitted budget until June 15.

“They’ve had an unprecedented, as far as I know, financial situation thrust upon them, and it wasn’t anything they did, and I think we need to do all we can to find a way to work with them throughout this process,” Campbell said.

Boone school officials have blamed their financial woes on a sudden, drastic decrease in property tax revenue from bankruptcies of major coal companies, and Campbell said Boone’s excess levy revenue has been “decimated.”

Campbell, who is a certified public accountant, said that allowing further spending flexibility should be explored for Boone, although he couldn’t name possible areas where more flexibility could significantly help. He said most of school systems’ costs are personnel related and that he hasn’t yet looked to see if anything other than personnel cuts could still be used to balance the budget.

He suggested the state should allocate more money to education statewide.

Board member Gayle Manchin said it’s a fact that Boone’s budget for 2016-17 isn’t balanced and needs to be fixed, something Boone’s board hasn’t yet done. She also noted that Boone spent its surplus over several years while it continued to employ workers above what the state school aid funding formula paid for.

“It’s pretty plain in black and white,” Manchin said. “They had extra money and they spent it.”

Manchin, however, said she didn’t know if she’d attend Wednesday’s meeting. Her term technically expired in November, and while she legally can continue to serve, she’s asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to find a replacement.

Education department data show Boone’s number of workers above the formula was at 115 in the 2011-12 fiscal year, when the school system ended with an $8.5 million unrestricted surplus, and the number above formula increased over several of the past few years as the reserves dwindled to a projected deficit for the end of 2015-16, the fiscal year that just ended. Boone’s school employees are second only to Putnam County, one of the state’s wealthiest counties, in average worker pay.

While criticizing a Gazette-Mail reporter at a meeting last week over an article on the reserve spending, Boone board member Joe Tagliente defended the school system’s spending over the past few years, including on safety issues at schools, but he also said he recognized the personnel above formula was a problem that would catch up with Boone.

State board member Bill White, of Mercer County, said he’s not opposed to voting for a takeover, if Boone doesn’t revise its budget in a way that would fund the 180 separate days of instructional time that state law guarantees students.

“Personally, I don’t understand why they’re being obstinate about this,” White said.
State board Vice President Lloyd Jackson said he didn’t know what Martirano’s recommendation would be. He said he wasn’t prepared to answer whether he would vote for a takeover or not, saying he’d like to see if Boone can submit a budget that doesn’t require the cuts the education department put forth.

“I’d like to see what they have to offer and hear what the department has to say about it,” Jackson said.

Boone’s board has unanimously refused to follow Martirano’s orders to make cuts that would have included thousands of dollars in pay for each employee and eliminating employer-paid vision and dental insurance coverage.

The education department has said the budget Boone had submitted for the 2016-17 fiscal year undershot and overshot expected revenue and expenses for various items, in some cases by hundreds of thousands of dollars, and would run out of money to fund expenses as early as April 2016. New Boone Superintendent Jeff Huffman suggested at a meeting last week, when Boone’s board again unanimously refused to make cuts, that if the education department follows through on another possible punishment, of withholding state school aid funding formula money, school employees might not be paid at all as of July or August.

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