The Funding Battle for Our Schools, Parks, and Libraries


JAN 19, 2024
The Cabell County Board of Education, the Cabell County Public Library, and the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District (GHPRD) are embroiled in a lawsuit over money. This week I spoke with key people close to the issue to get a better understanding of where things stand and what is likely to happen next.

After writing this post I asked my teenage sons, both students at Huntington High and interested in the story, to read it and give me feedback. They both shared great thoughts and then politely suggested it was too long, so maybe I should give readers a short version first and then let people who are super interested in the details read the rest. Here goes.

The Short Version: There were a lot of leadership failures that led us to a point where our most cherished public institutions are fighting in court. The resolution of this dispute will depend on a forthcoming decision from the West Virginia Supreme Court and the outcome of Cabell County’s excess levy vote scheduled for May 14th.

Regardless of the outcome of either decision, I think all our civic leaders need to embrace a united approach that mirrors the U.S. military principle of “one team, one fight” to ensure that our schools, parks, and libraries are all adequately funded. Although the different military branches compete for resources, they put their sibling rivalries aside when it comes time to defend the nation. Similarly, our taxpayer-supported public institutions should embrace a spirit of unity and focus on the common goal of making our community a better place to live and work.

The “one team, one fight” approach emphasizes collaboration among all of our public officials whose constituents will be affected. That includes mayors, legislators, county commissioners, and of course the leaders of our schools, parks, and libraries. Our public institutions are interconnected and enhance the quality of life in our cities and counties. We need to go to the legislature with a united front to see if there is a procedural fix to the issue. If not, we need to work together to find practical and creative solutions, including sharing resources across the organizations in ways that might have seemed too hard in the past.

The Longer Version: In 1967 the West Virginia Legislature passed a Public Library Special Act that obligated the Cabell County Board of Education “to provide a stable method of financing the operation of the said public library” through their excess levies. In 1983 they passed another act for the GHPRD that included a provision to “ensure adequate support for the maintenance and operation of the park district” by taxing the Cabell and Wayne county commissions and the towns of Huntington, Barboursville, and Milton, and through the Cabell County Board of Education’s special and excess levies.

The board of education’s excess levy, which was last approved in 2018, typically passes easily because there is strong community support for funding the schools, parks, and libraries. However, in August, due to declining student enrollment, the loss of pandemic-era federal funding, and state-imposed limits on levy amounts, the school board decided to significantly reduce funding for the library and completely eliminate funding for the parks on the next levy, intended to be in effect 2026-2030. It will be up to the state Supreme Court to determine if excluding them from the levy order is constitutional.

Why It Matters: If the Supreme Court upholds the lower court’s decision, the school board will have to continue allocating about 8% of its special levy funds to the parks and libraries. This would likely force the school board to make significant cuts to their own budget, and it is hard to imagine that those cuts wouldn’t have a direct impact on teachers and students.

If, instead, the court rules in favor of the school board, our parks and libraries would lose a substantial portion of their funding. This would likely initiate negotiations to see if the school board might voluntarily contribute some funds to the parks and libraries, even without a legal obligation. With less revenue, the parks and libraries would be forced to make hard decisions like whether or not to scale back maintenance operations, reduce educational programming, close local library branches, and reduce staffing.

By the Numbers: The current excess levy provides about $24-$27 million in additional annual funding to the schools, library, and parks. That amounts to more than 12% of the school board’s $241 million budget, or 19% if you look at only the general revenue fund. In August 2023, facing a $9.7 million budget shortfall, the school board unanimously voted to reduce the amount paid to the library from about $1.7 million to $195,000, an amount I’m told follows the WV Department of Education guidelines for the level of support a board of education should consider providing for their local library system. The vote also completely eliminated about $455,000 in annual payments to the park district. According to affidavits filed in the lawsuit, “the proposed cuts represent approximately 37%-39% of the Public Library’s operating budget” and “more than 16% of the Park District’s operating budget.”

What Happens Next: Because the excess levy will be voted on May 14th, the WV Supreme Court will likely be asked to make an expedited decision in the early March timeframe so excess levy ballots can be printed and delivered in time for the election.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the parks and libraries, it is likely the levy will pass again, and everything will return to the long-agreed-upon funding arrangement. This would mean the school board would still have a budget shortfall and would have to find savings somewhere other than the parks and libraries.

But some of the legal arguments have significant gray areas, so I won’t be surprised if, instead, the Supreme Court sides with the board of education. In this scenario, I expect to hear vocal protests with slogans like, “No parks, no libraries, no levy!” in the lead-up to the election. If the parks and libraries aren’t included in the levy, it will most likely fail, which means that in addition to what the parks and libraries would lose as described above, our schools would stand to lose over $29 million in annual funding — a substantial financial blow that would significantly impact teachers and students.

This would be catastrophic for the schools. If it happens, I would expect the school board to regroup and propose another levy that includes the parks and libraries for voters to consider during the November election.

No matter the decision, voter discontent over this issue has been palpable, and two of the five Board of Education seats will be contested in May. Currently, only three candidates have filed to run, but given the heightened interest and community discontent, I expect others will join the race before the Jan 27th filing deadline.

How We Solve The Problem: This wouldn’t normally be a City of Huntington issue, but as I said in my “Our City, Our Future” post, our teachers desperately need more support, and that support can’t come at the expense of our parks and libraries. These are our schools, our parks, and our libraries. They all contribute to making our community great, and I am committed to helping find the resources to support them all.

If the parks and libraries lose their funding source, the first step I would take is to work with our local legislative delegation to explore any number of procedural fixes. Is it plausible to raise the levy limits or allow parks and libraries to propose their own local levies that would be put up for a public vote? Would the Legislature be willing to add clarifying language to their 1967 and 1983 acts that explicitly excludes the parks and libraries from the bond limits so our school board wouldn’t face an inequality in school funding when compared to other counties? While I think these are logical and reasonable steps to take, I am not optimistic the current legislature would give county voters an option to increase the size of the levy because they don’t want anyone to perceive they are raising taxes.

That leaves us with the notion that these are our problems, and we need to solve them. The “one team, one fight” approach involves the school board, the park board, and the library board, of course, and also mayors from Huntington, Barboursville, and Milton, the county commission, and our local legislative delegation all coming together to devise a long-term solution. We need to put the public good at the center of our focus and explore synergies like shared staffing of librarians between libraries and schools, the city providing more resource officers for city schools, or the parks providing lawn care and facilities maintenance services for our schools. If we can identify interconnections among the various elements of public institutions, we can leverage each other’s strengths, be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and better serve the people of our community.

Thank you for reading. Please share or forward this message to your friends and family members who want to help make Huntington a better place to live and work!

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