CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The members of the West Virginia Board of Education knew that responding to a $750,000 audit of the state's public education system would be politically dangerous.
If they outright agreed with the audit that tenure decisions should be tied to a teacher's effectiveness, the unions would jump down their throats.
If they came out and said a new teacher evaluation system should be used to pay good teachers more and fire bad teachers, it would put lawmakers into a politically compromising situation.
If they gave principals too much power over hiring teachers based only on qualifications rather than on seniority, they knew there would be a union backlash.
But the board had to give the public a real response to the $750,000 education audit, which was released by the governor in January.
The audit, conducted by Pennsylvania-based firm Public Works LLC, said West Virginia has one of the most highly regulated education systems in the country and recommends a series of major educational changes -- from recruiting and retaining teachers to implementing energy policies in schools that would save millions. If fully implemented, the audit said, West Virginia could save $90 million a year on its education system.
At a retreat at Stonewall Resort in March, the nine-member board went point-by-point through all the audit's 100-plus recommendations to draft a response. In some cases, they decided to keep their comments vague and use language that wouldn't incite union anger.
In others, they pushed the thorny specifics onto the Legislature.
On several issues, though, they took a firm reform stand that pits them against the state's two largest unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association.
In a voice recording and draft audit response obtained this week by the Gazette-Mail, the state's top education policymakers candidly detailed all of the messy political concerns wrapped up in responding to a sweeping audit of the state's public education system.
Foremost in the board members' minds on some of the audit's most controversial recommendations -- such as starting a Teach for America program and allowing principals to hire teachers independent of seniority -- was how West Virginia's powerful teachers' unions and politicians would react to their proposals.
Hiring on qualifications, not seniority
West Virginia Code ... in practice, severely limit[s] a principal's ability to recommend for hiring the most qualified and best person for a position if that person is a new employee to the system. While intending to permit the hiring of the most qualified teacher, it in effect defines the most qualified as a teacher in good standing already employed by the county. -- Education Audit