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W. Va. Agency To Comply With Judge's Standards

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Charleston, WVa--After a summer of conferences and compromise, a West Virginia trial judge who ruled that the state's method of financing education is unconstitutional has agreed to a plan permitting the state to supervise a complete restructuring of its public-school system.

The move by Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur M. Recht at the request of the West Virginia Board of Education virtually assures that his landmark ruling last May will withstand any constitutional challenge.

The state board of education, a key defendant in the 10-year-old class action, announced last June that it would not appeal Judge Recht's ruling.

Tax Commissioner Hershel Rose III, another defendant, also agreed in early September not to press the case, at the bidding of Gov. John D. Rockefeller 4th.

Governor Rockefeller, who initially opposed the ruling, dropped his objections after Judge Recht volunteered to drop his plan to appoint a special commissioner to oversee the improvement of the state's schools and to substitute a task force managed by the state board of education.

Mr. Rose's withdrawal from the appeal, preceded by that of the Lincoln County Board of Education and the state treasurer, Larrie Bailey, left only one defendant, the state auditor, willing to carry on an appeal sought by Attorney General Chauncey H. Browning.

Implacable Critic

Mr. Browning, whose office defended the state in the trial of the case, has remained an implacable critic of Judge Recht's ruling.

Last Wednesday, he argued before the West Virginia Supreme Court that, despite alterations in Judge Recht's original order, the judge exceeded his authority when he ordered changes in the state's school system and tax structure.

The court has yet to rule on Mr. Browning's motion, but the Attorney General faces an uphill battle in light of the court's ruling in an unrelated case this summer. That ruling stated that the Attorney General does not have the authority to bring an appeal if his client does not want him to.

The plaintiffs' lawyers in the school-finance case have argued that since the key defendants in their case have declined to appeal, Mr. Browning should be prohibited from bringing the case to court in the name of the state auditor, a nominal defendant.

The judge in his May 14 ruling found that no school system in the state met the state constitution's requirement for a "thorough and efficient" education. He set forth a detailed list of standards in curriculum, facilities, and financing that he said state schools were required to meet. (See Education Week, May 26, 1982.)

Judge Recht said he would appoint a commissioner to work with state education and tax officials to devise a master plan to improve the schools. In a recent order, however, Judge Recht deferred the appointment and agreed to let the state board work on the standards.

'Best Posture'

Referring to the state board, the judge noted, "Since they have abandoned the appeal, they may be in the best posture to coordinate the plan."

Judge Recht ordered the state to deliver a final plan for putting his standards into effect by Dec. 15.

Last Wednesday, West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Roy Truby released the names of 95 people who have been appointed to the task force that will draw up the plan.

Despite the apparent agreement over the far-reaching school-finance case, difficult issues remain to be addressed, state officials acknowledge. Paramount among them is how any improvements in state schools are to be paid for.

State education officials estimated the cost of implementing all of Judge Recht's standards at $1.54 billion, though Mr. Truby has said he thinks that figure is high.

In his opinion, Judge Recht found that the tax department had failed to appraise, or appraise sufficiently, many classes of property.

The judge suggested that updating assessment methods and raising property appraisals--especially those of mineral lands--to current values could increase the state's income significantly.

However, under a tax-limitation amendment on the November ballot, any significant property-tax increases will be deferred until 1985 and then phased in over a 10-year period.

The net effect is that the state board of education, even if its plans meet Judge Recht's demands, will have problems finding the money to get its ideas off paper and into the schools.

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