$1-Billion School Plan Accepted by Judge In West Virginia

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Charleston, WVa--A West Virginia trial judge has accepted the lion's share of a plan generated by the state board of education to raise the state's schools to "thorough and efficient" standards.

Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur M. Recht, who last May declared the state's method of financing public schools unconstitutional, had only minor criticisms of a 356-page master plan that was delivered to him in January.

The plan, which was drawn up by a committee of 99 school administrators, teachers, and parents, sets forth specific standards in 50 curriculum areas--from pre-kindergarten through adult education.

It calls for the hiring of 5,000 new school staff members across the state and the expansion of support services such as counseling and health care. It suggests revisions in the school-funding formula to counteract the effect of different property values among counties, and orders extensive renovations and new construction of school buildings.

Altogether, the plan is estimated to cost the state more than $1 billion, with $752 million dedicated to buildings. The plan also aims to raise school salaries to levels comparable to those in states surrounding West Virginia.

In an eight-page order filed March 5, Judge Recht complimented the state for its efforts, saying he found the master plan a "commendable document" that is shaped to the contours of his order "with remarkable fidelity."

Judge Rejects Recommendation

The judge rejected a recommendation that the plan be phased in over a 17-year period, but declined to substitute his own timetable, saying, "The legislature should initially be given an opportunity to do this."

However, Judge Recht warned at another point in his order that "deferral to the legislative and executive branches to rectify problems as-sociated with education in this state should not be interpreted as an abdication of judicial responsibility, but instead as a good-faith attempt to allow these branches the opportunity to act."

The judge praised the state's plan to eliminate county excess levies, which he said "are at the root of the financial disparity among the various counties of the state," and to replace them with a statewide levy.

But he added, "While again it would not be appropriate to suggest a fixed time period within which counties must be weaned away from reliance upon excess levies in order to commence the curative process, such should occur at the earliest practicable time."

Judge Recht's order brought a collective sigh of relief from state officials who had feared that he would insist on drastic renovations in the plan or a stepped-up timetable.

State Superintendent of Schools Roy Truby said he was pleased that the plan remained largely intact and added that he thought Judge Recht's willingness to phase in changes slowly would assist his department in developing legislative support.

The judge "hasn't threatened us with dates, but he has called upon us to make an honest effort to provide educational opportunities to all students," he said. "All he's asking of us now is to make a good-faith effort."

No Quick Action Predicted

Robert Nelson, chairman of the state Senate's finance committee, predicted no quick action on the education plan, but indicated that if West Virginia's hard economic times improve, he may favor a special legislative session to address it.

"I personally want to take a good look at this plan because those who oversaw it and chaired the committees were the same ones who created the problem in the first place," he said.

Mr. Nelson's comments reflected the complaints of a citizens' group, the West Virginia Education Project (wvep), which has sought to intervene in the case to challenge the master plan.

The wvep has complained about Judge Recht's decision to per-mit the state board of education--which was a defendant in the case but declined to appeal after it lost--to draw up the master plan.

Linda Martin, director of the citizens' group, has charged that the plan provides for needless consolidation of schools and expansion of administrative positions.

Ms. Martin argued her request to intervene in the case before the West Virginia Supreme Court last Tuesday, and a decision is expected soon. If admitted to the case, she says she intends to appeal Judge Recht's order accepting the plan.

State Attorney General Chauncey Browning is also expected to appeal. The supreme court refused to consider his appeal of Judge Recht's order previously, saying that Mr. Browning had to wait until the final order was filed.

Meanwhile, the legislature was completing the final week of its 1983 session last week. While several bills were introduced addressing changes recommended by Mr. Truby, none were expected to make it to the top of the legislature's crowded calendar.

Vol. 02, Issue 25

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