West Virginia School-Finance Ruling Could Revive Land-Reappraisal Effort

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West Virginia educators and politicians, reacting to the state supreme court's reversal of a key part of a 1982 school-finance ruling, say they will press for a long-delayed statewide property-reappraisal effort.

In a unanimous 17-page decision in late November, the state high court held that Special Judge Arthur Recht erred six years ago when he ruled that a law permitting county school districts to seek "excess" property-tax levies violated the state constitution's equal-protection clause.

In his landmark decision in the now 13-year-old case, Pauley v. Bailey, Judge Recht found that the law allowing voters to raise school property taxes by up to 100 percent above their county's tax base unfairly favored affluent communities.

Currently, 33 counties have 100 percent excess levies, compared with about 18 that have none. Judge Recht had ruled that the system was primarily responsible for wide and unconstitutional disparities in education spending across the state.

The supreme court's November decision, however, stated that the constitution "expressly" authorized such levies.

The high court also set aside a 1987 order by former Special Judge Larry Cook--who took over the case from Mr. Recht but has since left the bench--that would have required his successor to confiscate excess-levy revenue and redistribute it to schools in counties without such levies.

The supreme court remanded the case to the Kanawha County Circuit Court and ordered it to determine whether county districts are receiving all the funding they are entitled to under the state's school-aid formula.

In addition, it directed the lower court to determine why the property-reappraisal program has been stalled, whether its implementation would help ease spending disparities, and if so, "to order such implementation as soon as practicable."

Following Judge Recht's 1982 decision, West Virginia voters approved a constitutional amendment calling for the property reappraisals.

The effort to bring tax assessments up to date was completed in 1983 at a cost of $35 million. It was expected to raise $90 million in new local school revenues by 1993.

The new appraisals, however, were prevented from taking effect by Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., a Republican who lost last November's election to Gaston Caperton. Mr. Moore allegedly was under pressure from the state's largest businesses and landowners to block the new and generally higher assessments.

Mr. Caperton pledged during his election campaign to implement the new appraisals.

Steve Cohen, Mr. Caperton's spokesman, said the Governor-elect believes the appraisal system "is far from perfect but is the only fair way to proceed." He said Mr. Caperton wants the system to be implemented "as fairly as possible."

Meanwhile, legislators, who convene in February, are waiting for a clearer signal from Mr. Caperton before taking up up the issue.

"A whole lot depends on the new governor," said Sondra Lucht, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "We anticipate he will do something on property reappraisal."

Senator Lucht said she and other lawmakers were hopeful Mr. Caperton would either implement the program or accept a new version that takes into account changes in land values over the past five years.

Mr. Cohen also said Mr. Caperton has appointed an 11-member team of financial experts to study the state's financial condition, including the impact of the recent court decision.

Daniel Hedges, the lawyer who represents the children named as plaintiffs in the case, noted that the supreme court left intact the lower court's basic finding that the current state-aid system is unconstitutional.

"The case is primarily an adequacy case, and that means you have to meet standards" for high-quality education that were set by Judge Recht, said Mr. Hedges.

The state school superintendent, W. Thomas McNeel, praised the supreme court's decision to address the reappraisal situation. The state's failure to enact the program "is the root cause for our education-funding problems," he said.

Vol. 08, Issue 16

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