WV Supreme Court hears Kanawha County public library case - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV Supreme Court hears Kanawha County public library case

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Are public libraries defined as education?

This question was posed during a Jan. 16 oral argument hearing before the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The case was originally filed by the Kanawha County Board of Education challenging the Legislature's special act, which provided funding of the Kanawha County Public library through "discretionary monies, provided additional state funding to county school boards, and permitted school boards to move library funding obligations from the regular levy to the excess levy."

The case stems back to a 1957 special act providing that three entities — the Kanawha County Board of Education, the Kanawha County Commission and the city of Charleston — fund the Kanawha County public library.

"Specifically, Section 5 of the 1957 Special Act provides that the three supporting governmental authorities are required to raise an annual, regular levy of ad valorem real property taxes of a certain fixed assessment and pay the levy so raised to the library as the library funding obligation," the state board's court brief states, noting that in the 2007-08 fiscal year, the county school board paid more than $2 million in regular levy taxes to the library.

Petitioners argue that although the funding is 1 percent of the county school board's budget, it is 40 percent of the library's budget.

Eight other public libraries in the state are set up by similar acts. These counties are Ohio, Berkeley, Hardy, Harrison, Raleigh, Tyler, Upshur and Wood counties.

Cabell and Lincoln also receive funding from county school boards' excess levies, court briefs state.

The Kanawha County Board of Education filed the first civil suit in 2003 against the West Virginia Board of Education and the state superintendent.

The county school board challenged the state school aid formula alleging it violated the board's equal protection rights because "the state formula does not provide an adjustment to the calculated state aid paid to the school board in light of the local regular tax levies it is required to pay under the 1957 Special Act to the Kanawha County Public Library," court briefs state.

In this suit, the lower court granted the state Board of Education's motion for summary judgment, ruling the state school aid formula constitutional.

The county school board appealed.

State Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of the Kanawha County school board but stayed its decision to give the West Virginia Legislature the chance to correct the school aid formula.

However, the county school board said the Legislature did not fix the problem and then filed another civil action in Kanawha County Circuit Court.

The lower court ruled in favor of the county school board on equal protection and state constitutional grounds, saying the school aid funding statute and the special act are unconstitutional.

The library board then appealed.

In their court briefs, petitioners said the special act should remain intact so the library can be funded as "intended by the Legislature."

In the Jan. 16 oral argument hearing, Christopher Winton, representing the Kanawha County Public Library, said libraries are education. Thus, he said, the county school board's equal protection right is not violated because there isn't a lack of uniformity in the state education financing system.  

"The Legislature in their statute made the finding that libraries serve a legitimate school purpose," Winton said in the hearing. "It is within the plenary power of Legislature to make that finding. The Legislature has the responsibility under the Constitution to provide a thorough and efficient system of education."

Winton said this case has broader constitutional implications.

"This case is really a matter of who decides," he said. "The question before the court is still down to this — Does the West Virginia Legislature, which has plenary power, have the responsibility under the Constitution to direct that tax levies be provided and spent on public education through the medium of a public library or does a local county board of education, which is a subordinate government body created by the Legislature, have the constitutional right where it can oppose the will of its creator."

Winton also argued the issue of government standing comes down to the definition of "personhood," and he argues the board is not a person under the state Constitution.

"It does not possess rights to equal protection or the right to education," he argued. "They can't sue merely to complain it didn't get enough funding.

Al Sebok, representing the Kanawha County Board of Education, said the Legislature didn't fix the problem.

"We have the same problem we did pre-2007," he said.

"The court found in 2006 that constitutionally and legally, libraries are not a school purpose," he said. "The court makes the decision whether the legislation is constitutional."

"The problem is that there is $2 million to $3 million a year that we have to give to the public library," he later added. "What that does is it creates a lack of uniformity in the financing system."

Sebok said he didn't understand why nine counties were treated differently than the remaining 46.

"There are inequalities," he said. "We are not contending that libraries aren't a good educational aid. We are not contending that the Legislature can't find a way to finance them. That's not our contention. Our contention is that nine counties are treated differently than the others. The education financing system shows compelling state interest to justify this inequality."

Sebok also argued the Legislature did not listen to the court when it asked to adjust the state aid formula.

"Over the last 10 years, that's $2 million a year that is not going to the classrooms of Kanawha County," he said.

Larry Rowe, co-counsel for the Kanawha County Public Library, said justices should take into consideration excess funding. He said if the county board is in a pinch on regular levy money, they should move it to the excess levy and let voters decide.

"The respondent asks whether libraries are education is a legal question," he said. "There is nothing in the state constitution that says education must only be delivered through the county board of education. This is not a legal question. This is a policy question and the Legislature has decided it in the first case."