Gov. Jim Justice’s administration has asked state agencies to prepare for a possible $100 million mid-fiscal-year budget cut and get ready for budget cuts for next fiscal year.
Meanwhile, West Virginia public colleges need more money to repair and maintain buildings and grounds, the state’s higher education oversight agencies say.
And the state School Building Authority, which helps fund prekindergarten-12th-grade school construction and repair, is saying new schools are increasingly expensive.
Brian Abraham, Justice’s general counsel and chairman of the SBA board, stressed the mid-fiscal-year cut isn’t guaranteed to happen. “Those scenarios are still being played out, so all there is now is planning — and prudent planning,” he said. “You don’t just go on gleefully unaware and run into a brick wall.”
State revenue has come in $33 million lower than expected a third of the way into this fiscal year, which began July 1.
Fossil fuel severance tax revenue is continuing to fall after Justice and the state Legislature agreed to cut severance taxes, and as the coal industry declines and temporary revenue-boosting natural gas pipeline projects are completed.
Education, particularly higher education, has been targeted in past budget cuts.
“It’s a tough situation when you have budget cuts when schools have this much deferred maintenance already and aging facilities,” said Matt Turner, executive vice chancellor for administration for the state’s higher education oversight agencies.
“It’s really difficult for them to make up for that loss.”
A May 2018 report from Connecticut-based Sightlines, an educational facilities advisement company, concluded that the state’s public community colleges need to spend $26 million just to fix their current “backlog of systems either in failure or systems no longer operating efficiently.”
Sightlines said needed parking lot work made up 30 percent of that.
In addition, the report also predicted over $10 million in deferred maintenance spending would be needed through this year to keep up, and millions will continue to be required as the years roll on.
That’s despite Sightlines estimating that West Virginia’s public community colleges need significantly less repair and maintenance per square foot than the national average for public higher education.
The last Sightlines report on the state’s four-year colleges was done in 2014, Turner said.
It concluded the state had historically fallen short of providing enough deferred maintenance funding for four-year schools to not fall further behind on needed repairs.
The state estimated back then that the West Virginia University Institute of Technology’s Montgomery campus, alone, had an over $100 million backlog of needed facilities renovations, but WVU eventually moved Tech from that campus to Beckley.
The West Virginia higher education agencies have submitted a request for $15 million more per year, according to a recent meeting agenda from one of the agencies.
This would give the agencies enough money to take on and pay back an estimated roughly $172 million in debt for public four-year college projects and $86 million for public community college projects.
Richard Donovan, facilities senior director for the agencies, said they would use the $15 million annually to pay off that chunk of debt over the next three decades.
Among the many projects funded would be a $3.2 million heating, ventilation and air conditioning system replacement at the Logan County campus of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, and various projects that BridgeValley Community and Technical College is planning to resuscitate a former WVU Tech building in Montgomery.
Justice has opposed closing or consolidating the state’s public colleges, a move that could reduce facilities costs.
Turner noted the governor and lawmakers increased higher education funding for the current fiscal year. That increased funding could now be at risk of being reduced.
“They were generous last year and we were really grateful for that,” Turner said. “But we have some catching up to do.”
The state School Building Authority’s process for determining needed public school construction and repair projects works differently than the higher education approach.
County school systems compete annually to convince the SBA’s board that their projects are worth funding out of a limited pot of money.
County schools superintendents will make their pitches to board members Nov. 18 and 19 for the annual “needs” grant cycle, in which the board decides each December how to dole out roughly $50 million annually. Currently, however, SBA Chief Financial Officer Sue Chapman said there’s only $26 million to pay for the counties’ $133 million in requests this year.
SBA Executive Director David Roach said this is because much of this year’s money is going to be set aside for large projects that the board previously approved to fund over several years. Roach said the SBA is looking at making another roughly $10 million available this year, though he didn’t know the details of how that may happen.
Mike Hall, an SBA architectural services assistant director, said only two counties are requesting money for new schools this year: Raleigh County wants a new Stratton Elementary to replace the current one, and Fayette County wants a new school to combine Meadow Bridge Elementary (which goes to sixth grade) and Meadow Bridge High (seventh-12th grade).
The authority is no longer funded through taking on debt, but through direct, yearly appropriations from lawmakers.
Last week, the SBA board approved increasing its total allowed funding per square foot for new schools from about $250 to $300.
The SBA hadn’t increased its allowed funding per square foot since 2013, the agency said, and SBA staff and a consultant said the allowance hadn’t kept up with the increasing cost of school construction.
Abraham, the SBA board chairman and Justice’s general counsel, said he doubts the SBA’s funding it distributes to counties would be cut as part of any mid-fiscal-year cuts.