MADISON — Boone County school board members finally voted Monday to severely cut their 556 employees’ pay and benefits, averting a West Virginia Board of Education takeover that loomed if the county had refused a third time to make the state-ordered cuts.
The unanimous vote, taken before an audience of about 250 people in the gymnasium of Scott High School, means Boone’s public school employees — previously second to Putnam County for average school worker pay — will each lose thousands of dollars in annual pay, and their employer-paid dental and vision insurance coverage. Retirees also will lose that coverage.
The state school board had threatened to make the cuts anyway, if the county board refused again. Boone board members said Monday that if they make the cuts, at least county residents would retain local control over their school system, and said benefits could possibly be returned in later years.
“We have to face reality,” said board member Susan Pauley Kimbler, who took office July 1. “We’re out of time, we’re out of options and we’re out of money.”
Late Monday, state Board of Education President Mike Green said the Office of School Finance had approved the budget passed by the Boone board.
But the fight to stop the cuts doesn’t seem to be over.
“As far as AFT is concerned, this is the beginning of the fight, not the end, and we do not want the county board in the middle, but we will fight whoever opposes us,” said Wes Toney, a representative of the American Federation of Teachers union. He said state education officials’ legal arguments regarding the cuts are flawed, and said his union is uncertain that a state takeover could be used in this situation.
Asked if the union will sue over the cuts, AFT-West Virginia President Christine Campbell said, “We are looking at all aspects of the decision that was made and will proceed accordingly.”
Mike Hennessey, an organizational development specialist for the West Virginia Education Association, said that union will file a lawsuit once its members have been affected by the cuts and can become plaintiffs in a case. He said the lawsuit likely would be filed against the county, instead of the state, although it could target both.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson has said the cuts would mean a $3,800 to $4,000 salary cut per full-time professional employee, including teachers and school administrators, and a $3,650 to $3,850 salary cut per full-time service employee, including custodians and bus drivers. She said that would bring Boone down to the state-minimum salaries that about 25 other counties pay.
Boone board members had unanimously refused to make the cuts twice in the past three weeks.
They voted months ago to close three elementary schools and cut 80 positions to slash expenses for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which started July 1. There was some question whether the school system would make it through the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Jeff Huffman, a former Boone assistant superintendent who became superintendent on July 1, said the county’s schools unexpectedly lost $6.9 million in revenue last fiscal year — or 17 percent of their operating budget. School officials largely blamed the drop on coal company bankruptcies and the companies moving their equipment, which provides personal property taxes, out of the county.
Last month, state lawmakers and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin gave the school system an extra $2.2 million to help pay employees through June 30. But at a special Boone board meeting on that date, the orders from state schools Superintendent Michael Martirano to make the severe cuts were revealed.
The state education department said the original Boone County budget was received May 31, and county schools could have run out of money as early as April 2017. The state estimated that the budget would have increased a projected 2015-16 ending deficit of $4.6 million by $1.7 million, and Huffman said budgeting mistakes had been made.
After the county board’s first refusal to follow his orders, Martirano gave it until July 8 to submit a “fiscally sufficient” budget. He issued new directives, but removed an order for Boone County to cut all of its positions over what the state school aid funding formula provides money for.
Again, Boone board members unanimously refused to follow the orders, as the unions urged them to do. However, on Thursday, the state school board, with only one member voicing disapproval, approved a takeover of the Boone school system unless the county fixed its budget by Monday. Martirano said he had a moral and legal obligation to ensure that Boone’s budget provide enough money to keep students in school for the state-required 180 days of instruction and pay teachers for their employment terms.
The revised budget Boone has now submitted to the education department also includes various other cuts that will impact employee pay, such as reducing extracurricular contract money for workers overseeing athletics and academic contests, like Math Field Day. It also includes nonpersonnel cuts, like making each school responsible for half of its copier use and cutting $22,500 that supported band programs.
Monday’s vote came after Huffman explained that the school system had received a West Virginia American Water cutoff notice for water at its central office and had received an email from the district’s food vendor saying it is considering service cuts over unpaid bills. He said the district also is having issues buying fuel for buses.
However, he also defended the school system’s spending over the past few years.
“I know that there have been comments made, ‘Well the board has just simply wasted our money,’ ‘The board has misappropriated our money,’ ” Huffman said. “If you’re looking for a scandal, if you’re looking for misappropriation, if you’re looking for something that’s been done wrong, you’re simply not going to find it.”