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Sweeping Reforms Urged in W.Va.

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In back-to-back reports, two blue-ribbon commissions have issued sweeping proposals for reforming the West Virginia school system.

While acknowledging that state leaders have already made a number of improvements in the schools, members of the two commissions called last month for renewed efforts to increase student testing, raise teacher salaries, and reform the state's tax system.

"West Virginians urgently demand improved public education," wrote Charles H. Haden, the federal district judge who chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on Education Reform.

The 39-member panel recommended a number of' policy innovations, including the elimination of age-based promotions in grades 1 through 4, and a shift to year-round school schedules throughout the state.

These and other reforms, the panel said, "will result in significant improvements without additional costs." But the report also asked the legislature to increase spending in a number of areas.

The second panel--the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Finance--also called for increased state funding for selected school programs, and urged voters to approve a ballot initiative next spring that would resolve a longstanding conflict over local tax levies.

Both commissions were established last year by the state board of education. Their reports, which are now under review by the board, highlighted the overriding importance of fiscal reform to the state's education-policy agenda.

Although the reform panel led by Judge Haden was not asked to study financial issues, the panel went out of its way to press for long-delayed changes in the state's property-appraisal system.

Property-Tax Reform

Under pressure from the courts, the West Virginia legislature has moved in recent years to reduce funding inequities among local school systems. Although the state's aid formula is highly equalized, districts depend on excess property-tax levies for much of their revenues, allowing affluent districts to spend considerably more than poorer ones.

According to the finance panel, such reforms will have to be accompanied by tax hikes if the state is to continue making educational progress.

"If the constitutional mandate for ... a 'thorough and efficient' system of public schools is to be achieved, our citizens will have to exert a greater tax effort," the finance commission contended in its report.

The ballot proposal, which will be voted on in March, would set a statewide limit on excess-levy rates, limiting the ability of wealthy districts to outspend less-affluent ones.

If the new statewide rate is approved, the legislature could further equalize spending by compensating poorer districts for their low property values, said State Delegate F.8Lyle Sattes, the chairman of the House Education Committee and a member of the finance panel.

Such adjustments, however, will require new sources of revenue, Mr. Sattes noted. West Virginia is currently experiencing severe cash-flow problems, and some officials foresee a budget deficit next year unless taxes are raised or spending is cut.

Last month, the treasury came dangerously close to empty. To avoid default, the state has been forced to delay aid payments to school districts.

While agreeing that West Virginia faces a long-term need for new revenues, Mr. Sattes downplayed the seriousness of the current crisis. Most districts, he said, received large property-tax payments in September and can cope with the delayed payments from the state.

"It's certainly not helpful to [the districts,] but it's not catastrophic," he said.

But similar funding delays later in the year when local cash balances are low could cause more serious problems, he warned.

To raise additional revenues, the finance panel recommended that the legislature reinstate the sales tax on food, which would bring in an added $120 million, the report noted.

Both commissions strongly urged the state's tax commissioner to begin using a new property-appraisal system, which was approved by the legislature in 1982. The revised system updates property values and standardizes assessment methods throughout the state.

The new system, Mr. Sattes said, is fairer to property owners and will increase local revenues. The tax commissioner, however, has refused to implement the system, citing administrative difficulties.

The finance commission also covered such policy issues as:

Facilities. The report calls for the creation of a single bonding authority to fund construction and renovation projects statewide. School buildings, the report argues, now show "extraordinary variance in ... quality and adequacy."

Staff Levels. The state formula linking some school-employee slots to pupil-enrollment totals, the report says, should more accurately reflect population changes, school size, and other factors. And funding under the formula for administrators and service employees should be capped.

Service Deliveries. To cut costs, small and rural districts should be encouraged to pool their resources and offer special programs jointly. Both commissions also recommended increased funding for remedial classes, early-intervention initiatives, and expanded student-testing programs.

Both commissions issued forceful appeals for sizable increases in teacher pay and benefits. West Virginia's average teacher salary currently ranks 45th in the nation.

Lobbyists for the West Virginia Education Association intend to seek such raises when the legislature convenes in January, a spokesman for the organization said.

But Mr. Sattes said the panels' goal of raising salaries to the national average may be unrealistic given the state's current budget problems.

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