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Board of education: Five county school systems facing budget shortfalls

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- School systems in five West Virginia counties face severe budget shortfalls at the end of this fiscal year on June 30.

Those counties — Braxton, Calhoun, Mason, Monroe and Preston — have deficits in their operating budgets that are termed "more than casual" by the state Office of Education Performance Audits.

The deficits in each county is greater than 3 percent of the revenue the school system can expect from its voter-approved property tax, or have been a recurring theme in the county. They range from a little over $88,000 in Mason County to just under $2.5 million in Preston County.  

In January, each county's school system submitted plans to the state Board of Education to reduce and eventually eliminate those deficits. The board approved those plans during a regular meeting Wednesday.

Board member Lloyd Jackson said budget problems could swiftly lead to larger problems in a county. To remedy budget issues is to avoid a state of disarray that requires intervention from the state Department of Education. Currently, six West Virginia county school systems are under state control: Grant, McDowell, Fayette, Gilmer, Mingo and Preston.

"Ultimately it hurts everybody when that happens," he said. "If you stay on top of this, you can avoid taking these counties over in most cases.

In at least one county, Preston, the budget shortfall can be partly attributed to a specific incident: in November Preston County voters rejected a renewal of the excess levy proposed by their local school system, leaving school officials scrambling to come up with the $1.7 million they expected to collect from that tax each year.

In other counties, though, the shift was more gradual.

Gus Penix, director of the Office of Education Performance Audits, said many of West Virginia's rural counties have seen gradual declines in enrollment, resulting in less funding from the state. Some school systems have neglected to decrease personnel in tandem with that shift, resulting in budget shortfalls.

In Braxton County, for example, enrollment has dropped by 310 students in six years. When officials faced a budget shortfall of nearly $717,000 in the 2011 fiscal year, they cut 14 professional positions and 12 service positions, shrinking the deficit by nearly $270,000.  

Officials tentatively proposed to cut 24 more positions in the coming year to counter another 60-student dip in enrollment, and to close the remaining gap in the school system's budget.

Also at Wednesday's meeting, Lynn Boyer, superintendent of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, recommended that the board take no action related to the school's facilities plan. Last month, Boyer asked the board to sign off on the $4.8 million plan so that administrators could seek public funding for extensive renovations to the school's aging campus.

The board asked Boyer to return with more information on the costs of implementing the plan at the schools' campus in Romney, and asked her to examine the possibility of building new facilities in other, more central parts of the state.

That move prompted a public outcry in Hampshire County, leading Boyer to believe she needed more time to give the issue the attention she feels it deserves. She asked the board Wednesday to table the issue for a year, when she will return with more research and a new facilities plan. The board agreed.

The School Building Authority already granted the schools $1 million for the project, but that funding was contingent on the school's ability to secure the rest of the money for the project — $3.4 million.

That offer from the SBA is set to expire in April.

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


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