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W.Va. Court Reopens Landmark Finance Case

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West Virginia's school-finance system goes on trial this month when a judge revisits a landmark 13-year-old court mandate for injecting equity and quality into the state's schools.

A county circuit court agreed in December to reopen the 1975 case that Judge Arthur Recht finally decided in 1982, ruling the state school system unconstitutional. When hearings begin Feb. 14, the court will be asked to determine if the state has carried out Judge Recht's order for overhauling the West Virginia schools--a verdict that sent school districts in many other states to court hoping for similar outcomes.

All sides in the case agree that the judge's orders included detailed prescriptions that the state has failed to follow to the letter. But observers say that the bigger question--and one that could decide the outcome of the revived lawsuit--is whether Recht's list of mandated school resources is an outdated yardstick for measuring quality in education.

A 20-Year-Old Case

This month's hearings trace their origin to a suit filed against the state 20 years ago by Janet Pauley, a Lincoln County mother of five. Ms. Pauley's lawyer, Daniel Hedges, argued in the suit that the state's reliance on property taxes to pay for public schools discriminated against poor districts.

Judge Recht ruled in Ms. Pauley's favor, arguing that none of the state's 55 counties met the constitutional test of providing a "thorough and efficient" education. After more than 40 days of expert testimony, Judge Recht crafted a school "master plan" so exhaustively detailed that it even outlined the appropriate square footage for classrooms and the proper acreage for school facilities.

Judge Recht, legislators, then-Gov. John D. Rockefeller 4th, and other state leaders clashed over the decision and initial estimates that the plan would cost at least $1 billion. There was even talk of impeaching Judge Recht, said Roy Truby, the state schools superintendent at the time.

"You think of all that happened, and there easily could have been a constitutional crisis," said Mr. Truby, now the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board in Washington.

The Yugo vs. the Mercedes

Given the plan's costly prescriptions, it was almost inevitable that the case would eventually go back to the courts, analysts say.

"They had a Yugo," said Allan R. Odden, a school-finance expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, "and maybe they should have had a Lumina. But what they asked for was a Mercedes."

Mr. Hedges in his motion to reopen the case addresses only the state's school-financing system, which he calls "constitutionally deficient."

Most finance experts point to the state's "excess levy," local property-tax revenues set above the state's mandated level, as the source of inequity in per-pupil spending. Because the tax is based on property values within each county and is not equalized by the state, poor areas inevitably draw less revenue than their wealthy neighbors, even when they tax residents at higher rates. Also, in counties where voters reject the additional levy--14 counties last year--schools have to make do without this state-aid supplement altogether.

"It was the culprit then, and it is the culprit now," said Henry R. Marockie, the state superintendent.

Modernizing Recht?

In court, state leaders are expected to point to actions taken to comply with Judge Recht's decision. Two voter referendums have been held on a statewide excess levy, as Judge Recht called for, but voters rejected the tax both times.

The legislature, meanwhile, has moved to equalize teacher salaries and increase spending for teacher and professional development, technology, and a small-district equity fund.

To help counties too poor to raise facilities funds through bond issues, the state also created the School Building Authority in 1988. In six years, the authority has helped pay for 22 new schools, an additional 21 are being built or planned.

The state will continue to work to improve schools, said Sen. Lloyd G. Jackson, the chairman of the Senate education committee, but implementing every last item of Judge Recht's decision is not practical.

"This has been a very expensive process," he said, "but obviously the plaintiffs think we haven't done enough."

In his motion to reopen the case, Mr. Hedges asked the court to set a timetable for completing Judge Recht's order and to appoint a commissioner to oversee its implementation.

While such a judgment could lead to a court-ordered reassessment of schools and a legislative scramble to redesign the school-funding formula, the court may choose to use the case to update the focus of the Recht decision from inputs to outcomes, according to some observers.

When Judge Recht compiled his master plan in 1983, it focused almost completely on money, supplies, equipment, and other so-called input measures, Mr. Truby said.

"This time around, I would hope there would be a balance that looked at the resources going into schools and the results coming out," he said.

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