Less Money Sent To Schools

WHEELING – Ohio County Schools will receive an additional $602,509 from the state to cover the cost of employee raises next year, but school district officials say they still will see overall reduction in state aid of more than $1.3 million in 2015 largely due to an increase in property taxes in Ohio County.

The expected $1.3 million decrease in state aid was among factors considered by Ohio County Board of Education when they voted 3-2 last month to maintain the school district’s excess levy at 95.5 percent. Ohio County voters decide whether to renew the levy for another five years when they go to the polls May 13.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed legislation last month giving counties most of the funds needed for upcoming employee pay increases approved by the the Legislature. That legislation granted a $1,000 across-the-board pay increase to teachers, as well as a 2 percent raise for service personnel.

As a result, $602,509 is on its way to Ohio County from the state, but this money is considered as “pass through” funds that can’t be put toward any other expense but employee raises, according to Steven Bieniek, business manager for Ohio County Schools. The funds, though, are included in the state aid totals listed for Ohio County by the West Virginia Department of Education.

Ohio County had been slated to receive state aid of $20,181,434 for 2015 in preliminary figures given to board of education members, and these figures have since been amended by the West Virginia Department of Education to show the district now will get $20,783,943 – reflecting the $602,509 increase.

The school district received $21,504,766 for fiscal year 2014. When the money for the teacher’s raises is removed from the state aid amount for this year – using the initial figure of $20,783,943 – the expected loss in aid is still expected to be $1,323,332 in 2015.

Bieniek attributes much of the expected deduction to increased property values in the district. Because Ohio County’s regular levy is generating more money due to increased property values, the state will send Ohio County Schools about $1.1 million less next year. The remaining amount of $200,000 is attributed to changes in state aid formula, according to Bieniek.

Bieniek is preparing the Ohio County Schools budget for fiscal year 2015. Members are slated to vote on the budget during a meeting set for 6 p.m. May 28. While municipalities were required to have their budgets to the State Auditor’s Office by March 31, school boards have until May 30, Bieniek said.

“In the end, it’s still going to be $1.3 million that we’re short,” said Assistant Superintendent Bernie Dolan. “They raised it on that side (in the form of state aid), but it goes out as salaries.”

Superintendent Dianna Vargo said the school district is appreciative the governor signed the legislation providing funds for the teachers pay raises to counties.

Last month, board members voting in favor of keeping the excess levy at 95.5 percent were Sarah Koegler, Christine Carder and board president James Jorden.

“The money coming in to Ohio County Schools will be pass through in the form of teacher’s raises,” Jorden said. “Our budget (expectations) are unchanged. We’re not gaining any additional revenue.”

Carder said the state is “paying us to pay the teachers,” and otherwise Ohio County Schools would have to assume the cost for upcoming employee raises.

“We didn’t gain anything,” she said. “We’re not gaining any money for supplies or technology out of that money.”

School members wanting to reduce the excess levy amount were Gary Kestner and Shane Mallett. Mallett said it was “unfortunate and disappointing” board members were not made aware the school district would be receiving money from the state for personel pay raises before the vote , and he believes the district still could have afforded to reduce the levy rate even without it.

“Even with a payback of approximately $1.3 million, it was my belief that there was still enough excess funds to cover additional anticipated costs to Ohio County Schools and to lower the excess levy rate to 95 percent without suffering any loss of services,” he said. “Clearly, with this new information coming to light, my belief was correct despite being defeated by a 3-2 vote. “

Board members decided at a meeting March 24 at what rate to set the excess levy before sending it to the State Auditor’s Office for certification. Members voted April 15 to officially set the level at 95.5 percent.

Tomblin signed the legislation establishing pay raises for school employees March 31.

Mallett, Carder and Jorden are running for re-election to the board on May 13, and other candidates in the race weighed in on the issue.

“The board … had a responsibility to report this to the public,” said Sam Andy. “They received this information in March, but in April meetings Mr. Jorden chose to supply various charts that emphasized the loss of 1.3 million.

Tim Birch said his understanding was the county will lose no funds.

“As I understand it they will gain $2 million from the state plus the $2.6 million from the reassessment (of the excess levy), which adds up to $4.6 million in additional funds,” he said. “I don’t have the exact figures but I feel there is a huge miscommunication going on here. I feel a full 1 percent could be given back to the taxpayer without adversely affecting the budget.”

David Delk said the discrepancy is an example of the “lack of candor and forthrightness when it comes to the disclosure of information to the public.”

“This fuzzy math presented by Mr. Jorden at both the March 24 and April 15 board meetings is just the latest example of the failure by Ohio County Schools to provide full disclosure of information to the public,” he said.

Candidate Alex Coogan could not be reached for comment.