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W.Va. Finance Equity Ordered

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Following up on a historic 1982 court ruling, a West Virginia circuit judge has ordered the legislature to equalize spending among the state's 55 county school districts and raise new funds for education by July 1, 1987.

Threatening to restructure the state's school-finance system by himself if the legislature fails to act, Circuit Judge Jerry W. Cook this month set the first deadline for state action to address the mandates of the so-called Recht decision on the constitutionality of West Virginia's public-education system. (See Education Week, June 19, 1985.)

The state has developed a master plan for implementing many of the court-ordered reforms, but it has not raised the funds to pay for them. Gov. Arch Moore, a Republican, has vowed not to implement the reforms, and the legislature has declined on several occasions to raise the required funds.

"They'll never agree to the Recht decision," Judge Cook said in an interview last week. "The Governor and the legislature are not going to act on Recht because they feel the court usurped their power, and they're offended by that."

The Recht Decision

In 1982, Circuit Judge Arthur M. Recht held that West Virginia's education system violated both the equal-protection and education clauses of the state constitution. A year later, the state supreme court upheld the decision.

The original decision attracted national attention because it marked the first time a court had attempted to delineate the characteristics of a "thorough and efficient" school system, spelling out in great detail the physical and fiscal re4quirements necessary to make West Virginia schools conform to the charge of the constitution. State leaders argued that Judge Recht had usurped their constitutional powers and that his decision would bankrupt the state.

Judge Cook, who was named to oversee implementation of the court order when Judge Recht stepped down, had previously refused to set a deadline for state action on the case. The education department, a defendant in the lawsuit, had originally asked Judge Recht for 17 years to implement the decision, but the judge refused.

Instead, he called on the state to implement the reforms at "the earliest time practicable."

Four Options

In accepting an order developed by the plaintiffs and the defendents in the original lawsuit--including the state board of education, the state auditor, the state attorney general, and the state treasurer--Judge Cook suggested that officials have four options for reforming the current finance system:

Pass a statewide excess property-tax levy;

Raise property assessments to bring them more in line with appraisals;

Pass a dedicated tax on a selected commodity, such as food; or

Supplement the education budget with additional money from the state's general fund.

F. Lyle Sattes, the chairman of the House education committee, said last week that he doubted the state would raise taxes or cut spending in other areas to meet the court's mandate. He said the "best solution" would be for the legislature to place a constitutional amendment on the 1986 ballot that would create a statewide excess levy.

The legislature tried a similar approach in 1984, but the voters turned it down.

The legislature also failed in its last session to pass enabling legislation that would have put in place a reappraisal of property values statewide, which could have raised millions of dollars for education.

But Judge Cook noted that "even if the reappraisal were put in place, it's not going to raise enough money" to finance the reforms.

The judge estimated that it would cost the state $300 million a year for 10 years to satisfy the mandates of the court order.

The state now spends about $1 billion a year on education.

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