Judge sides with parks, libraries against Cabell BOE; district must continue funding the agencies
A variety of books and resources are available at the Cabell County Public Library Main Branch in Huntington, West Virginia, on Thursday, July 27, 2023. In addition to the Main Branch, the Cabell County Library system has seven branches serving the communities of Barboursville, Cox Landing, Gallaher Village, Guyandotte, Milton, Salt Rock, and West Huntington. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)
Cabell County Circuit Judge Gregory Howard issued a ruling Friday in favor of the Cabell County Public Library and the Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District in their lawsuit against the Cabell County Board of Education.
In light of the ruling, the school district must continue to fund both the libraries and the parks under policies passed by voters via the 2018 excess school levy. Barring an appeal, the ruling also means that in the 2024 election, both the public library system and the parks district must be included in the excess levy that appears on voters’ ballots.
The decision came after the Cabell County Public Library and the Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District filed suit against the school board in September over its decision to slash funding for parks and libraries in the county.
Huntington-based attorney Marc Williams, who represented the two agencies against the school board, said Friday that the decision was important to clarifying the rights voters have when deciding how to fund public goods in their counties and the limits that should exist for government agencies looking to subvert those funds to “balance their budgets.”
“What this means is that the desire of the voters of Cabell County who decided in 2018 that they wanted their tax money to be given to the park board and the libraries to support the work they do will continue,” Williams said. “It was remarkable that the board of education took the positions that it did. Notwithstanding the fact that voters approved this, the school board argued they didn’t have to give the money. At least now, that is cleared up with this decision.”
The school board’s vote to cut funding for both the parks and libraries came in the wake of a $4.5 million budget deficit for Cabell County schools. On Aug. 1, the school board voted to approve a levy plan that would zero out funding for the parks district and limit spending for libraries at $195,000 — a drastic difference from the former budget of $1.7 million that libraries have been receiving under the voter-approved levy in 2018.
Arguments for the Cabell County case started in the circuit court on Monday, where lawyers for the parks and libraries and the school board argued whether or not the actions on the levy are considered state actions and, as such, whether they can be reviewed by the Equal Protections Analysis, according to the Herald-Dispatch.
The lawsuit filed against the school board argued that it didn’t have the authority to decide on its own to stop payments from a levy that was approved by voters. It challenged an assertion made by Cabell County Schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe during the Aug. 1 meeting, where he said that, based on prior Supreme Court rulings, the school board “cannot be compelled to provide funding for parks or libraries.”
Saxe was referring to a 2013 case, where the state Supreme Court sided with Kanawha County Schools’ argument that the district was not required to put part of its budget toward the library.
Attorney Kenneth Webb, representing the school board, used this example to argue on Monday that any legislation — including levies — that “obligate” a school board to fund parks and libraries outside of a “unified, comprehensive, applied across-the-board funding scheme” violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution,” per the Herald-Dispatch.
Williams said there is a stark difference between the Kanawha County case and the situation in Cabell County, as the latter centered on an excess levy voted on by citizens — not money allocated to the school board from the state.
“Essentially, what [Webb] argued is a correct statement of law — generally speaking, any sort of funding mechanism that would treat one county different from another county is subject to being a violation of the equal protections clause,” Williams said. “But this is an excess levy that is ratified by the voters, and our existing law in West Virginia holds — and the judge found today — that since excess levies are ratified by the voters, they’re not subject to the same protections.
“If county voters want to make the decision that they’re willing to take on additional taxation to fund things, in this case parks and libraries, that is okay and permissible,” Williams continued.
Earlier this week, both Webb and Williams told the Herald-Dispatch that, no matter the outcome of the case, the party that does not win a declaratory judgment from Howard would plan to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
Williams said that he was sure his clients felt “vindicated” by Howard’s ruling on Friday, but he understood that the fight may not be over.
“We hope that they consider other options, but that’s up to them,” Williams said.
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