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Education officials weigh Cedar Lakes Conference Center cuts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Ripley could fall victim to funding cuts under a recent budget proposal from the state Department of Education.

Earlier this year, the State Budget Office asked agencies to begin submitting their appropriation requests for the 2015 fiscal year. Agencies were asked to prepare one request that left funding in line with that of the current year, and another that included 7.5 percent cut in agency spending.

Most state agencies already had to absorb similar 7.5 percent cuts for the current year to help fund spending growth in the state's Medicaid program. With revenue continuing to remain tight, further cuts may be required.

To meet the 7.5 percent cut for next year, the Department of Education is considering eliminating most funding for Cedar Lakes.

The nearly 400-acre facility located just outside of Ripley was created by the Legislature in 1949 as the state's site for the Future Farmers and Future Homemakers of America, which is under the state Department of Education. Using land donated by residents of Jackson County, the facility is also the annual home of the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair.

To meet the 7.5 percent budget cut recommendation, the department is considering laying off the conference center's 35-employee full-time staff and cutting other expenses to save about $917,000 over the next year.

Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said state education officials were faced with tough decisions over the coming year. She said they made an effort to give priority to expenses that went directly into the classroom.

"We took a hard look at what areas that directly impact students in their classrooms every day, and we worked hard not to cut those funds," she said.

Cedar Lakes, however, did not fall into that category.

While the department is proposing staff cuts, it is not planning to completely close the facility.

The department plan would still call for regular maintenance and upkeep of the facilities, which would cost about $147,000 over the next year.

Closing, selling or removing Cedar Lakes from the Department of Education's oversight has long been considered at the statehouse, though no action has ever been taken.

The recent audit of the state's education system by consulting firms Public Works LLC and MGT recommended the center be transferred to another state agency that could better manage the facility.

It also proposed other changes to help make the facility more profitable.

"If Cedar Lakes Conference Center is expected to operate as a successful business, then it must be able to function in a market economy," the audit said.

That, the audit said, wouldn't happen under the Department of Education's guidance.

"If the State chooses to continue public sector operation of CLCC, it should be administered by a department with the appropriate resources, expertise and mission to support such an endeavor, such as the Department of Administration, or even the Department of Education and the Arts," the audit said.

The state Board of Education agreed with this finding in its response to the audit, and requested the facility be moved to another agency.

"Looking at the big picture, the board has always said we think it would be better utilized if another state agency could take over Cedar Lakes," Cordeiro said.

Employees at the conference center were told about the potential cutbacks Thursday. That launched a heated response on social media protesting the move.

A "Save Cedar Lakes Conference Center" Facebook group created Thursday night had already amassed more than 3,200 members by Friday afternoon.

However, officials cautioned the move is not final. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office has yet to review the agency's budget request to decide what he will propose to the Legislature early next year.

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates and state Senate will also have their say in the budget process, and whether to move administration of the facility to another agency, during next year's legislative session.

Cordeiro cautioned that the proposal is simply a suggestion at this time and is nowhere near to being final.

"It's all under consideration - it's not a done deal," she said.

Contact writer Jared Hunt at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.


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