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SBA has $40 million for new schools

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Thanks in part to legislative action, the School Building Authority has been able to fund the construction of many new schools across the state in recent years.

Even now, nearly 25 years after the SBA was created, Executive Director Mark Manchin said he anticipates even more new school construction, renovations and added safety features over the next 20 years. Since 1989, the SBA has funded $6.7 billion in new school construction, building 33 high schools, 36 middle schools and 31 elementary schools, as well as additions or improvements to 1,400 schools. More than 500 schools, representing all 55 counties, have received safety upgrades, including keyless entries, windows, door numbers, signage, buzzer entries and bollards, among others.

But there's one thing that's important to school construction, Manchin said, and that is money.

"Because of the stimulus package passed four years ago by Congress, the School Building Authority had the opportunity to access qualified school construction bonds for school construction for an incredibly low rate — in some cases zero percent," Manchin told a joint meeting of the House of Delegates Finance and Education committees March 5.

In the past, the Legislature has given the SBA access to lottery excess funds to pay down debt. So far, the SBA has used $19 million out of that fund, generating $252 million. But lottery revenue is declining, and that's affecting agencies across the state that depend on that fund. Manchin said he and other SBA officials were expecting 2012 to be a tight year budgetwise.

"We anticipated that in 2012 and 2013, we would not have funds adequate to have a funding cycle," Manchin said. "We anticipated '12 being a very lean year. … But I'm proud to let you know it appears right now we'll have in excess of $40 million for new school construction this year."

But those schools likely won't be in Wayne or Lincoln counties, two counties where voters last year struck down excess levies that would have helped build new facilities. According to Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, three of the state's top 15 most critical needs schools are in his county. He wanted to know what the county could do to attract SBA funds to fix the schools at Crum and Kenova.

Manchin said SBA funds are finite, but partnership is key.

"We've got to ensure those funds go as far as they possibly can," he said. "One way to do that is to partner with the county."

Manchin said SBA members like to see the county take some initiative. In bond and levy calls, for example, Manchin said the county should outline its needs. The SBA prioritizes distribution of funds based on several criteria, the most important of those being safety of children and efficiency. Manchin said it would take about $30 million to $32 million of SBA funds to build two new schools at Crum and Kenova.

"If we do all $32 (million), the chances of us doing other schools ... then that limits what we can do," Manchin said. "There is no set number. I will say this, if you decide to go through the voters and ask them to support a bond or a levy … it doesn't generate the same amount of money, but it is very, very helpful in securing money in your county."

If Wayne County voters had supported the bond, the county would have gotten $19 million for a new school, Manchin said.

"I understand the finances," Manchin said, noting he served as superintendent of schools in Webster and McDowell counties. "We ask counties to make every effort. At least show us. The question is why should the state fund a county that's not willing to help themselves."

The SBA does have an emergency fund set aside that totals 2 percent of its operating budget for any given year. When a sinkhole damaged the school at Kenova a few years ago, Manchin said the SBA spent $2 million of its emergency fund to put temporary structures in place and fix damage to the building. But now, the emergency fund is even less.

Perdue said he is worried about the school at Crum, saying he wouldn't be surprised if it was forced to close within the next few years.

"I think it's worse than critical," he said. "I'm very concerned it may be closed."

But Manchin said he anticipates the SBA will soon address the pressing needs in Wayne County.

"I can envision within 36 months the kids being in a new school in either one of those communities," Manchin said.

Delegate Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, also represents a part of Lincoln County. Because that county also did not pass a levy last year, Craig worried about future standing with the SBA.

"The needs of Lincoln County, Wayne County and counties throughout West Virginia are very real," Manchin said, noting the SBA respects the democratic process that led to the failure of the levys.

"Every year it's a new year," Manchin said. "So if next year a project gets submitted to us, we'll review that project according to code."