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In Troubled W.Va., New Governor Sets Bold Renewal Plan

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Saying education "is a do or die issue" for West Virginia, Gov. Gaston Caperton last week outlined an ambitious plan to rescue the state's beleaguered public-school system.

In his first State of the State Address, the new governor offered proposals to shore up the nearly bankrupt teacher-retirement fund, pay off overdue medical claims, provide a salary increase to teachers, and improve remedial education.

Mr. Caperton also called for a $500-million school-construction program. And he asked lawmakers to back a constitutional amendment that would reconstitute the state board of education, allow the Governor to appoint the state school superintendent, and create a new post of secretary of education and the arts.

"The vision I see with the passage of the education package is a state in which education becomes the catalyst for social and economic regeneration," said Mr. Caperton.

Years of economic stagnation have taken a toll on West Virginia, forcing state government into a position of being unable to promptly pay its bills.

Corporate tax refunds for 1987 have yet to be made. The teacher-pension system, unless rescued by the state, may become insolvent in 18 months. Some hospitals have refused to honor insurance cards held by state employees and teachers. And employees have gone without raises for three years.

"Let there be no mistake. The people of this state need no longer despair over the financial condition of West Virginia because this governor and this legislature will pay their bills on time," Mr. Caperton pledged in his speech.

Lawmakers took the first step toward addressing the financial crisis last month by adopting the largest tax increase in state history. In addition, Mr. Caperton moved quickly after taking office to slice the budgets of all state agencies, including a 6 percent reduction in aid to public schools. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1989)

The new taxes and budget reductions are expected to provide the state treasury with an additional $400 million. Mr. Caperton proposed using a substantial portion of those funds to finance a "bold and progressive" school-reform effort.

Meeting Obligations

The Governor recommended earmarking $125 million of the state's projected $1.7-billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year to ensure that the teacher-retirement fund remains solvent.

According to Kayetta Meadows, president of the West Virginia Education Association, that amount would be sufficient to cover benefit payments and begin to replenish the system's reserves. The teachers' union sued the state last month to force it to make required payments into the fund.

Mr. Caperton also asked lawmakers to appropriate $4.5 million and to authorize $135 million in state borrowing over three years to cover the cost of teachers' and state employees' unpaid medical claims. In addition, he urged state and local officials to find ways to reduce health-care costs.

Government Reorganization

One of the most controversial plans offered by the Governor would eliminate the existing state school board, which is now empowered to select the state school chief, and replace it with a new board. The legislature voted in its special session last month to give Mr. Caperton the authority to combine existing agencies and departments.

Mr. Caperton has not yet issued a proposed constitutional amendment detailing the changes.

His announced plan calls for creating a new, gubernatorially appointed post of state secretary of education and the arts under a cabinet-style form of government.

The secretary would be primarily responsible for coordinating the state's various education and related services. The chief state school officer, who would also become an appointee of the governor, would continue to be responsible for day-to-day management of the education department.

Steve Haid, the Governor's education advisor, said the changes are needed because the state board4lacks accountability to the public. He noted that members now serve nine-year terms, and that the state supreme court recently struck down a 1988 law that would have required the panel to submit its proposed regulations to a legislative committee for review and possible revision.

Mr. Caperton said his proposed governmental reorganization would save West Virginia enough money to provide teachers and state employees with a 5 percent pay increase effective in January 1990.

However, other officials said the school funding formula must be reduced by $10 million in order to pay the $19 million needed for the half-year raises for teachers.

In his speech, Mr. Caperton noted that 17 percent of West Virginia's students drop out of school, that 10.5 percent of its population is functionally illiterate, and that the state ranks last in the nation in terms of college attendance.

Remedial Education

To address those problems, he proposed earmarking a portion of the revenues from the state's lottery to improve basic-skills programs, including a four-year program to improve students' computer-literacy skills.

The Governor also recommended: a new program of grants to school districts to lengthen the school year for remedial and preschool-education programs; the creation of a statewide audio-visual center; and a $500-million school construction and renovation effort financed by state bonds and general-fund revenues.

Positive Reaction

Mr. Caperton's proposals were greeted warmly last week by state and teachers' union officials.

"Finally, someone has come up with a plan," said Ms. Meadows of the wvea "Over all, we think the Governor has made a real commitment to education."

But she added that teachers were disappointed that they would have to wait nearly a year to receive what they consider an insufficient raise.

Patricia Hamner, president of the state school board, said the Governor addressed "some very progressive areas that the state board and department have had as priorityitems for years."

She said that she has requested a meeting with Mr. Caperton to learn more about his proposal to reorganize the board and that state officials currently are unsure about the ramifications of the change.

Ms. Hamner, a board member since 1982, said West Virginians have shown "extraordinary confidence" in Mr. Caperton. The state's financial crisis, she noted, has touched the lives of all of its citizens.

"People are uniquely and keenly aware of the fiscal crisis in the state and they are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices in order to make things right," she said.

Mr. Caperton "has been tremendously encouraged by the cooperation of the legislature," said Steve Cohen, the Governor's spokesman. "There's a tremendous spirit of cooperation."

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