Public education is expensive. This fiscal year West Virginia will spend $2 billion out of a $4.4 billion General Revenue budget to educate our children from grades K through 12. The public ed budget dwarfs all other state spending, except for the Department of Health and Human Resources; it’s General Revenue budget this year is $1.1 billion.
So public education spending takes up nearly half of all state spending.
Still, there is considerable momentum during this legislative session to spend more on public ed. It’s estimated that the additional spending in the Senate version of the education reform bill would add up to $137 million, most of which would pay for pay raises averaging five percent for teachers and service workers and incentive programs for teachers in hard to fill positions.
But there is a key provision in the bill that could generate even more money for public education…and raise your taxes. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill allow for county boards of education to raise the property tax levy rates with the approval of a majority of voters in the county.
The current regular levy rates are 19.4 cents per $100 for Class I property, 38.8 cents per $100 for Class II property, and 77.6 cents per $100 for Class III and IV property. The bill would allow county school boards to raise those rates to 22.95 cents for Class I, 45.9 cents for Class II, and 91.8 cents for Class III and IV, if voters approve.*
So how much money are we talking about? The staff in State Auditor J.B. McCuskey’s office has run the numbers and here’s what they came up with (using property values for this fiscal year):
If all 55 counties voted to raise their regular levy rates to the maximum allowable, it would generate another $103 million for public education.** Of course, put another way, property owners would be paying another $103 million in taxes.
Naturally, the larger counties would generate the most additional money—Kanawha County would bring in another $11.3 million—while the smaller counties wouldn’t see much additional money. For example, Wirt could would only raise another $166,000 if the voters approved the maximum regular levy rate.
Originally, the bill empowered county school boards to raise the regular levy rates on their own. That would have meant that by a 3-2 vote of the school board your property taxes would go up, but several senators objected to that, so it was amended in the Senate to require a public vote.
If the education bill passes with this provision remaining, it will give counties another mechanism to raise money for schools. However, it’s questionable how many counties would actually go that route or whether voters would buy in on raising their taxes to spend even more on education.
*(Class I property is intangible personal property. Class II is owner-occupied residential property and farmland used for agricultural purposes. Class III is all real and personal property outside a municipality that is not taxed in Class I or II. Class IV is all property inside a municipality that is not taxed in Class I or II.)
** (The $103 million figure represents gross receipts. The net that would go to education would be somewhat less because of taxpayer discounts for early payment, uncollected taxes and various deductions.)