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Supreme Court reverses circuit court decision on funding for Cabell libraries, parks

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Supreme Court reverses circuit court decision on funding for Cabell libraries, parks

Feb 22, 2024 | 9:01 pm ET
By Caity Coyne
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Supreme Court reverses circuit court decision on funding for Cabell libraries, parks
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An entrance to Ritter Park, located in the Southside community of Huntington, West Virginia, is shown on Thursday, July 27, 2023. In 2012, Ritter Park was named one of the 10 Great Public Spaces by the American Planning Association. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

Two days after hearing oral arguments on the case, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Thursday issued an order to reverse and vacate a circuit court decision that required the Cabell County Board of Education to continue funding libraries and parks.

An opinion on the ruling has yet to be released, but per the order, will be issued “in due course.” 

In light of Thursday’s order, residents in Cabell County will vote on a proposed excess levy during May’s primary election. That levy proposal — which school board members unanimously approved in August — would zero out funding for the Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District and severely cut money for the Cabell County Public Library down to $195,000 annually compared to the $1.7 million the libraries previously received. 

The move to change the funding levels came in the wake of a $4.5 million budget deficit for the school district that leaders have said is due in large part to declining school population as well as the expiration of one time monies. In the last six years, enrollment has declined by 1,400 students. Come September, the district will no longer receive federal COVID-19 relief funds — which amount to about $11 million over the last few years — that have been used to help pay staff.

Cabell County Schools Superintendent Ryan Saxe said in August that the board would need to cut 150 school system jobs next school year to decrease spending and stabilize the budget.

The Greater Huntington Parks and Recreation District and the Cabell County Public Library filed suit against the school district in September 2023. In November 2023, Cabell County Circuit Court Judge Gregory Howard ruled in favor of the parks and libraries, which meant the school district would have to fund both entities under policies passed by voters via the 2018 excess school levy. It also meant that the public library system and the parks district would have had to be included in the excess levy that appears on voters’ ballots in May.

In December 2023, Cabell County schools appealed the lower court’s decision up to the Supreme Court. Attorneys for the Cabell County Board of Education have argued that forcing the school district to provide funding for parks and libraries is a violation of the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Any legislation, including levies, that “obligate” a school board to fund parks and libraries differently in one county than another, he argued, would be a violation of the clause.

Since the excess levy approved by voters in Cabell County predicated that education funding provided through it would be allocated to parks and libraries in addition to the school systems, the funding for schools in counties across the state is not equal, according to arguments heard on Tuesday.

Counsel for the libraries and parks argued that since the choice to adopt the excess levy and allocate the additional funding — which is separate from what is allocated in a general levy — to the entities is approved by voters, it is not subject to protections outlined in case law.

The Cabell County library system serves more than 90,000 people — the third largest reach for libraries in West Virginia. 

Residents in Cabell County have been organizing against the funding cuts since they were announced in August 2023. Most recently, organizers and supporters for the libraries and parks are urging voters to vote down any education levy if it does not include adequate funding for both organizations.