CHARLESTON - The state Supreme Court decided Monday that Kanawha County's Board of Education is correct in its challenge of a library fund the school system is ordered to pay each year.
The 3-2 decision overturns Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King's December 2005 ruling that withheld the $2.2 million annual payment given to the county's public libraries. King had decided that libraries aid the educational process, and that Kanawha County students were getting a satisfactory education with the budget that included the annual payment.
Justice Elliott Maynard wrote the opinion, with Chief Justice Robin Davis and Justice Brent Benjamin concurring. Justices Larry Starcher and Joseph Albright dissented, and both delivered dissenting opinions.
The decision, however, will be stayed until July 1 to give the state Legislature time to address the issue of the formula that determines the amount of the payment, which was created by a special act in 1957.
"Having found that West Virginia Code... is constitutionally deficient, we believe that the Legislature must take corrective action by amending the applicable statutes as provided in this opinion," Maynard wrote. "However, because this Court believes that a period of time will be necessary for the Legislature to take the necessary steps to amend the statute, we will do as the state school board suggests and defer entry of a final order to accommodate a legislative solution."
Kanawha school board attorney Jim Withrow has said the formula in question has remained a mystery.
"It's kind of complicated," Withrow said in July. "I'm not sure anyone fully understands the state aid formula for schools."
Kanawha's school board filed the lawsuit in 2003, claiming its constitutional right to equal protection had been violated.
Withrow also said over the summer 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.
Kanawha County schools have a budget of more than $200 million, with a yearly carryover over $6 million to $13 million.
"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."
Maynard, Davis and Benjamin agreed with Withrow and the argument made by Jackson Kelly attorney James Brown.
"West Virginia Code... to the extent that it fails to provide that a county school board's allocated state aid share shall be adjusted to account for the fact that a portion of the county school board's local share is required by law to be used to support a non-school purpose, violates equal protection principles because it operates to treat county school boards required bylaw to provide financial support to non-school purposes less favorably than county school boards with no such requirement," Maynard wrote.
In dissenting, Albright says that the majority justices have "inflicted upon the public library system a serious and unnecessary blow."
"In the guise of protecting the fundamental right of education," he added, "the majority has chosen a course of action that will have long-term detrimental effects on the public library systems throughout this state -- systems that are undisputedly beneficial to the students and citizens of this state and that are clearly education-related in nature."
The dissenters also argue that the Legislature could react to the decision by spreading its message to the other counties that have similar laws: Berkeley, Hardy, Harrison, Ohio, Raleigh, Tyler, Upshur and Wood.
"Whatever the motive, the constitutional analysis in the majority's foray into micro-managing the state's school system is a mess, and the result is just plain wrong," Starcher wrote.