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Kanawha school board trying to avoid $4.5 million shortfall

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County school board members are looking at several measures to steer the school system away from a projected $4.5 million deficit in 2014.  

In a special meeting Monday to discuss budget issues, Superintendent Ron Duerring laid out a list of drastic measures the board could take to make up for the impending budget shortfall -- though he was careful not to endorse it.

That list included things like cutting budgets for personnel, travel and maintenance, as well as eliminating entire programs like summer school and after-school remediation. It also called for increasing the number of students each teacher is charged with and reducing the number of substitute teachers.

"Principals would have some very difficult decisions to make," Duerring said. 

If the board accepted that plan as a whole, slashing every program on the list, it could cut $5.9 million from next year's budget -- just over the $4.5 million deficit the board will face in 2014.

That plan doesn't account for what would happen in the following years, when the deficit is projected to grow -- reaching more than $7.5 million by 2018.

"We have to face the fact that inflation is exceeding the revenues that we're bringing in," Duerring said. "We've done all these cost-saving measures, but we're still going to hit the wall eventually.

The board is considering other ways to avert the impending deficit -- namely, by rethinking a cap on a funding stream that the board decided to implement last year.

Last year, the board voted unanimously to let voters approve a proposal for a five-year cap on the amount of money the board could receive from an excess levy.

Kanawha County has had an excess levy for years, using that to fund the Department of Education on top of the revenue received through regular property taxes. But the board wanted to offer the public some relief from the weight of the taxes

The voters approved that measure by nearly 66 percent, capping the school system's income from that levy at a flat $44.2 million.

The school board expected to be able to implement the cap while still collecting a steady stream of tax revenue, betting on projections that more property would come into the system to be taxed or that property assessments would change in favor of higher taxes.

"At the time we were all thinking that the economy was turning for the better," board member Robin Rector said. "We respected the general opinion of the community that they had enough pain for a few years."

Newer projections show this isn't the case.

On the day the cap takes effect, the school department will be short nearly $5 million. That's at least in part because of the cap, Duerring said, though the school system has also been affected by a decrease in federal stimulus money and other, unexpected losses in revenue that fall outside of the board's purview.

Board President Pete Thaw said voters should be grateful they were given a chance to opt for lower taxes.

"If they let this governmental body have control of the cap, there will be no cap," Thaw said. "A bureaucracy will spend the amount of money that is available ... that's why a bureaucracy eats everything it sees."

But the other four board members stand in stark contrast to that stance, saying they regret their decision to approve the cap, and that they're eager to look at any option they have to avert the deficit.

"This is going to take a lot of communication with the community to explain," board member Bill Raglin said. "At some point we as a board are going to have to stand up and take our comeuppance."

A handful of Kanawha County principals were at the meeting to watch the board's discussion. Michael Kelley, Herbert Hoover High School principal, spoke for the group, commending the board on its conservative fiscal policies to date. But he warned them of the pitfalls of operating on a reduced budget, saying a reduction in programming on the scale needed to avert a budget shortfall would be "catastrophic."

"Dr. Duerring has never been a superintendent who cried wolf over the budget," Kelley said. "Certainly there are places where educators' solution to every problem is more money, but he has never been that type of educator. If he is telling you there is danger on the horizon, I think it's wise to heed that warning."

The board has yet to discus the particulars of proposing a new excess levy or of removing the current cap. Duerring will present the board with a slate of options and more particulars on the projected budget for 2014 at a curriculum meeting in March.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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