Look for Education Dept. Cuts

Don’t be surprised if the budget Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposes later this year includes a cut in funding for the West Virginia Department of Education.

Not long ago – even a year ago – that might have been viewed as unthinkable. But the political clout picture is different, now. Some formerly sacred cows now are no more than hamburger.

If you’re an educator, postpone your heart attack until you’ve gone back and re-read that first sentence. I didn’t say Tomblin would suggest reducing funds for public schools. That and the DOE may be two different things, in more ways than one.

Public education reform will be the top priority during the upcoming regular session of the Legislature, Tomblin told a crowd of journalists Thursday. Neither he nor lawmakers at the event specifically proposed changes in how public schools are funded – but the hints were plentiful.

Granting county school systems more autonomy – that is, less micro-management by the DOE – will be on his agenda, the governor said. Less control by the DOE means fewer people will be needed by the agency. Both that and more local control over schools were suggested in an “audit” of public education by a consultant last year.

During the Thursday event, House of Delegates Minority Leader Tim Armstead of Kanawha County made his feelings clear.

The audit report shows legislators “can look at reductions in education funding,” Armstead stressed. Then he emphasized he’s thinking of the DOE, not state support for local schools.

“For every 4,000 students in Virginia, there’s a state administrator,” Armstead noted. “In West Virginia, it’s roughly one for every 400. Do we really need 10 times the bureaucracy in West Virginia?”

West Virginia ranks fifth among states in per-capita funding for public schools, Armstead continued. “It’s 48 percent of our budget, and we’re saying we’re not going to touch that?” he asked.

All the while, House Finance Committee Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, was seated just a few feet away from Armstead. He didn’t counter his Republican colleague’s suggestion about education funding.

Don’t look for an enormous cut in state spending if the governor and legislators decide to trim DOE funding, however. Of the slightly more than $2 billion a year we spend on public schools, nearly all (about $1.88 billion) is in state aid that goes to the counties. The DOE itself, with about 637 employees, is a relatively small slice of the pie.

So don’t expect a big dollar-amount cut in DOE funding. The purpose of trimming the agency’s funds will be more to reduce the bureaucracy in Charleston than to save money. Look for that to happen.

Two of the great unsung heroes of state government usually attend the annual Legislative Lookahead events in Charleston, sponsored by the Associated Press. The gatherings bring journalists and state officials together ahead of the regular sessions of the Legislature.

The two – nicknamed “Doom” and “Gloom” by some lawmakers – were present again on Thursday.

Their real names are Mike McKown and Mark Muchow, and they are, respectively, the state budget director and state deputy revenue secretary.

McKown and Muchow got their nicknames for the very reason West Virginians owe them a debt of gratitude: Each year in preparing estimates of revenue state government will receive during the coming year, the two men are very conservative.

Because governors and legislators have had the good sense to enact budgets based on the conservative revenue estimates of Muchow and McKown, West Virginia hasn’t suffered the fiscal crises that have plagued states with less prudent leadership. In Ohio, for example, state officials faced an $8 billion budget gap two years ago, because of overly optimistic revenue projections.

So when lawmakers refer to “Doom” and “Gloom,” they’re smiling. Mountain State taxpayers should be, too.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net.