Calhoun seeking change to small county school funding

By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

Officials from the county school system with the biggest deficit in West Virginia want changes to a part of the state's school aid funding formula that's meant to help the lowest-enrollment counties by paying them for students they don't have.

There are nine counties in the Mountain State with fewer than 1,400 public school students from prekindergarten through 12th grade: Calhoun, Doddridge, Gilmer, Pendleton, Pleasants, Pocahontas, Tucker, Tyler and Wirt. Combined, they have fewer than 10,000 students. Kanawha County, the state's largest school system, has more than 27,000.

The state funding formula has many pieces, but it gives counties money largely based on enrollment. The 1,400 number is important because it's the enrollment level an in-house state Department of Education study concluded was the lowest amount of students a school system could be funded for and still be able to provide a basic education, according to Joe Panetta, the education department's chief operations officer.

He said counties have to have a minimum of three schools. Eight of those nine low-enrollment counties border at least one other under-1,400 county, education department spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said state law bars counties from completely merging their school systems, though they can establish jointly-run schools.

Panetta said the state Legislature a decade ago began funding the counties with fewer than 1,400 students as if they had more, and in 2008, lawmakers made changes to the state funding formula that began automatically funding these school systems for the students they don't have.

But that same year, lawmakers also added a new calculation that meant only the county with the lowest student population density would be funded all the way up to 1,400 students. The rest would get less than the full 1,400 based on how many more students per square mile they had compared to that most rural county.

Calhoun -- the school system with the largest deficit in the state at $1.8 million, or over one-fifth of its annual operating budget -- has problems with that. In net enrollment count last school year, the count used to determine funding for this school year, Calhoun had about 329 fewer students than 1,400. But it was only funded for an extra 98. If it had been paid for the remaining 231, it would've received $1.2 million extra, an amount that could erase two-thirds of its deficit.

"If I got funded for 1,400 students, I would probably be in pretty good shape," said Dan Minney, Calhoun's school finance director.

Fully funding all nine counties up to the 1,400 level would've cost the state -- which last month announced the first mid-school-year cut to preK-12 education since the early '90s -- an extra $7.4 million this fiscal year, according to data from the education department. The state's subsidization of these small counties has also grown significantly over the past decade, rising, for instance, from $67,232 to $499,974 for Calhoun.

Calhoun schools Superintendent Tim Woodward has been working with Republican Delegate Roger Hanshaw -- whose district includes all of Calhoun and sections of Gilmer and Clay counties -- to find a solution. Hanshaw said he's met with the heads of the state House and Senate education and finance committees. Hanshaw said he doesn't want to take money away from larger counties, but to correct what he thinks is an "unintended consequence" of the funding formula.

Panetta said he didn't recall which legislators moved to put the accounting for population density into the 1,400 funding calculation, and it wasn't recommended by the education department's report that established the 1,400 figure, but he said one could make a strong case that it costs more for a county to serve students spread out over a larger area than a smaller area. Other parts of the funding formula also take population density into account. For instance, it provides more money to hire service personnel, a designation that includes bus drivers and cooks, in more sparsely populated counties compared to more densely populated ones.

West Virginia's least-densely populated county currently is, and has traditionally been, Pocahontas County, which only averages 1.1 students per square mile. This school year, because it had about 1,074 students last school year, it was funded for 326 students it didn't have, for a total of $1.7 million extra.

"We're making decisions for eight other counties, based on one county, Pocahontas," Hanshaw said.

Among the nine counties with fewer than 1,400 pupils, Pendleton had the next lowest density, at 1.4 students per square mile. Pendleton only had about 945 students last school year, so it would get funding for an extra 455 students, worth $2.4 million, if it were paid up to the 1,400 threshold. But the formula takes into account that Pocahontas has only 84 percent of Pendleton's density, so it only grants Pendleton dollars for 84 percent of its 455 gap. That means Pendleton only gets funding for 383 more students, about $2 million.

The impact is much greater on Calhoun because it has about 3.8 students per square mile. Pocahontas only has 30 percent of that density, so this school year, Calhoun only got funding worth 30 percent of the 329-student difference between its enrollment and 1,400.

Fully funding up to 1,400 this school year would have had the biggest financial impact on neighboring Gilmer, a state Board of Education-controlled county that last school year had West Virginia's lowest enrollment at 903 and 2.7 students per square mile. Pocahontas has 43 percent of that density, so the $2.6 million Gilmer would get for its 497-student gap was more than halved, to $1.5 million.

"Us small counties just need a little more help." Minney said.


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