CHARLESTON - After 29 years as an attorney, Jim Withrow is able to laugh at how both sides of an issue can be perceived.

A Kanawha Circuit Judge declared in December that students in Kanawha County's school system were getting a satisfactory education with the Board of Education's current budget, meaning the board had to continue an annual payment to the Kanawha County Public Library.

A few months after that ruling, a former Sissonville High School student sued the Kanawha County Board of Education for educational malpractice, claiming the education he received did not prepare him for life after graduation.

"It just depends on which way you're looking at it, I guess," said a chuckling Withrow, the school board's attorney.

While Withrow and the school board are challenging Kanawha Circuit Judge Charlie King's December ruling on the case filed in 2003, they are not arguing that county students are not receiving a proper education.

Instead, they are appealing to the state Supreme Court for reimbursement of $2.2 million of tax money transferred from the board's budget to the county's public library system. The Supreme Court recently decided to hear the case.

James Brown of law firm Jackson Kelly in Charleston is handling the case for the school board.

"It's kind of complicated," Withrow said. "I'm not sure anyone fully understands the state aid formula for schools."

Withrow explained that a county's school board is given a pre-determined amount of money that the state Board of Education feels is necessary for the county to operate efficiently, which is weighed against the amount of taxes collected.

When the amount the Kanawha County Board of Education's is funded is determined, Withrow argues that the state board does not consider the obligatory amount it gives to the county's public library system.

"By comparison, you go down the road 30 miles to Putnam County and they don't have to pay any money to their public library," Withrow said. "I'm not against public libraries. This is not an issue of 'for or against.'

"This is an issue of equity in funding. If (Putnam County school board officials) want to support their libraries -- and it's my understanding that they do -- that's their choice. They have the ability to use their tax money any way they want to."

Withrow says a special act was passed in 1957 by the state Legislature that required both the City of Charleston and the Kanawha County school board to pay a percentage of the tax revenues allotted to the two entities to the county's library system.

Similar acts were later passed for the counties of Harrison, Berkeley, Wood, Hardy, Tyler, Ohio, Harrison and Upshur.

Withrow says several of those counties have shown support for Kanawha's appeal. After all, a precedent-setting decision in favor of the Kanawha County school board would be in their best interest.

"Our argument with regard to Kanawha County and the other eight counties is that it creates two separate classes of counties - one is fully funded and the other eight aren't," Withrow said. "We believe that's discriminatory. It denies the students and people of Kanawha County equal protection."

In King's December ruling, he used Kanawha County's yearly surplus of funds as a reason it could afford to still make the payment.

Kanawha County schools have a budget of more than $200 million, with a yearly carryover over $6 million to $13 million.

The solid financial state of the system shouldn't mean its money is up for grabs, according to Withrow.

"We're spending $2 million a year on the Kanawha County public library, which we don't particularly mind," he said. "But the state doesn't realize we don't have enough money that we need to hire new teachers."

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