Boone County school employees who filed official grievances over the substantial cut to their pay and benefits since 2016 won a partial victory this month.
But the administrative law judge — citing accounting errors by the Boone school system and saying it improperly spent certain funding on expenses it wasn’t intended for — left unclear how much money employees are due if the decision stands.
Both sides could appeal the decision to Kanawha Circuit Court. Boone school officials have not returned requests for comment.
On July 18, 2016, following multiple coal company bankruptcies and tax revenue coming in millions of dollars under projections, Boone Board of Education members voted to reduce their then-556 workers’ pay and eliminate their employer-paid dental and vision insurance coverage. Retirees also lost that coverage.
State Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said the cuts back then meant 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.
Earlier this month, state Public Employees Grievance Board Chief Administrative Law Judge Billie Thacker Catlett dismissed employees’ claims that their dental and vision coverage was improperly ended, and she ruled that the Grievance Board has no power to offer relief to retirees. She said there were about 400 grievants, but didn’t make clear in her order how many were considered retirees.
She did rule that in “2017 and 2018 [the Boone school board] failed to spend more than $5.5 million [of] excess levy funds on excess levy purposes,” and one of that levy’s purposes was to fund the county’s supplements to the state-set minimum worker salaries.
Catlett cited state law that says, “Funds derived from a special levy may be expended only for the purpose for which they are approved.”
She also wrote that the Boone school system “spent some excess levy funds on improper purposes,” so “the actual amount [the school system] failed to spend on levy purposes cannot be calculated from the accounting provided.”
For a county school board to collect excess levy property taxes, it must put the issue before voters in a ballot explaining to them what the extra taxes they pay would be used for. A majority of the voters must then approve the excess levy for it to take effect.
Catlett wrote the board’s excess levy ballot authorized the school system to collect $11.7 million in each of the five fiscal years beginning July 1, 2015, and ending June 30, 2020.
Of that annual total, the ballot said $1.6 million was the “approximate annual amount considered necessary” for “fixed employee costs and benefits, including county salary supplements.”
“It is impossible to tell from the evidence presented in this case how much [the school system] paid in actual county supplements each year, as opposed to its share of the State supplement amount, or how much excess levy money would have been available to pay as determined above,” she wrote. “The specifics of how much Grievants are entitled to be paid as a county supplement must be determined through accounting performed in accordance with the findings in this decision.”
Catlett also wrote that Boone Treasurer Samuel Pauley included in the excess levy budget “the amount of money spent on the excess levy categories from other funding sources, creating an illusory deficit in the balance of the excess levy funding.”
“This is, frankly, as Grievants aptly stated, a shell game,” Catlett wrote. “Whether intentional or not, it conceals that the full excess levy collections were not spent on the levy call in 2017 and 2018. When the improper inclusion of the $7.2 million dollars of other funding that was spent on the excess levy categories is removed, it reveals that over those three years, Respondent collected $25.1 million in excess levy funds but only spent $19.6 million of that money for alleged excess levy purposes.”
West Virginia School Service Personnel Association General Counsel Trey Morrone, a former Wayne County Board of Education president and one of the lawyers representing grievants, said he expects appeal filings, if only to preserve the right to appeal before a 30-day window closes. He said discussions are ongoing to avoid circuit court.
“Concerning Boone County, the West Virginia Department of Edcuation has not had an opportunity to fully analyze the decision,” Anderson said. “We are concerned about the effect this decision will have on Boone County’s financial operations and the broader impact that it could have statewide.”
In 2016, then-state schools superintendent Michael Martirano ordered the cuts, saying Boone’s proposed budget for the 2016-17 school year wouldn’t have been able to fund keeping students in school for the state-required number of instructional days and wouldn’t have been able to pay employees for their full employment terms.
The Boone board twice refused to comply, but relented on July 18, 2016, after the state Board of Education threatened to take over the school system and make the cuts anyway, if the Boone board refused again.
Catlett wrote that, on July 1, 2018, the Boone board did reinstate a $1,150-per-employee salary supplement.