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West Virginia Hikes School Aid, Bolsters Pension System

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West Virginia lawmakers adjourned last week after boosting state school aid by 18 percent and bailing out the nearly insolvent teacher-pension fund.

Following first-year Gov. Gaston Caperton's recommendations item for item for the most part, lawmakers approved measures to reorganize state government, raise teacher pay, allocate new funds for school construction, and revamp the state's program for gifted and talented students.

"As far as we're concerned, this was one of the most successful legislative sessions for education in recent history," said Kayetta Meadows, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

Steven Cohen, Mr. Caperton's spokesman, said, "The Governor feels strongly that the foundation has been set for significant progress in education and economic growth."

In recent years, a troubled economy had left the state unable to fulfill many of its financial obligations, including its share of the pension fund and medical claims under its employee-insurance program. In addition, the pay scale for teachers had not been increased since 1986.

Budget Highlights

The $1.7-billion state budget approved by lawmakers on April 10 includes $924.5 million in basic aid to school districts. Education and health were the only two areas of state government that received funding increases.

The education budget includes $108 million to shore up the teacher-pension fund, which has been forced to dip into its reserves to continue payments to retirees and was expected to become insolvent in 18 months without the infusion of new money.

Governor Caperton also has appointed a task force to make long-term recommendations for rebuilding the fund.

Legislators also appropriated $100 million to pay state and school employees' delinquent medical bills, and $113 million to pay employees' medical bills in the new fiscal year. Some employees' bills have gone unpaid for six months or more.

A companion measure will freeze the rates that hospitals can charge for services at last year's levels. It also requires the establishment of a list of "preferred providers" who are willing to serve state and school employees at lower rates.

Government Restructuring

The legislature also agreed to place a constitutional amendment on the Sept. 9 ballot that would allow the Governor to appoint the members of the state board of education and creel15late a new cabinet-level post of secretary for education and the arts.

Reconstituting the board is part of Mr. Caperton's plan to reorganize state government by consolidating 150 agencies, boards, and commissions into seven agencies, each headed by a cabinet secretary.

Voter approval of the constitutional amendment would give the governor the authority to select the state school chief. In addition, policies adopted by the new board of education would be subject to legislative review.

Mr. Cohen said the reorganization of state government will save West Virginia an estimated $50 million in the next fiscal year. That money will be used to give teachers and state employees 5 percent pay increases as of next January.

Senator Sondra Lucht, chairman of the Senate education committee, said teachers who work in property-poor districts would receive addi4tional raises through an appropriation of $11 million to equalize salary levels.

Ms. Lucht said her only disappointment in the session was the last-minute rejection of her efforts to add a provision on property reappraisal to a bill. The state supreme court, which found the funding formula for schools unconstitutional in 1982, has ordered that property appraisals be updated across the state.

In other action, the legislature approved bills to:

Establish a school-construction authority that will issue up to $125 million in bonds this year to pay for new school buildings and renovation.

Create an honors and advanced-placement program for high-school students. It replaces a program for the gifted and talented that was included in the state's special-education program.

Allocate $7 million to provide computers to every 1st-grade class for use as an instructional aid in teaching basic skills.

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