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Legislator calls BOE's response to audit 'weak'

Lawrence Pierce
State Board of Education President Wade Linger presents the board's response to a statewide education efficiency audit to lawmakers during an interim committee meeting at the state Capitol Tuesday.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislators expressed several concerns with the Board of Education's plan of action for a sweeping efficiency audit of the state's public school system on Tuesday and urged the board to be more transparent about what it wants in terms of policy change.

At the center of Tuesday's interim meeting discussion was the Board of Education's goals for a year-round school calendar, a better teacher evaluation program, more technology in classrooms and right-sizing of Department of Education staff.

Most of the board's proposals, though, would require amendments to state code, and Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, told Board of Education President Wade Linger if he wanted change, he'd have to be more upfront about it.

The board has a tendency to tiptoe around the issues and needs to be clearer, Plymale said, calling parts of the audit response "gobbledlygook."

When Plymale asked Linger if having a balanced year-round school calendar was one of the board's top priorities, Linger said he "wouldn't go that far" but felt "pretty strongly" about it.

"That's weak. If you sit there and tell me that you feel strongly about some of these things, then that's a fairly weak reply to me. I see a lot of recommendations, but I don't see specifics. If you're saying you need to change code, it's very vague. We're not offended by strong statements that say, 'This is the direction we think you should go,'" Plymale said.

"Let's be very blunt about this: what we're doing isn't working. This is where I agree with you - if we don't make some changes, we are not going to be able to provide the workforce for the 21st century. We're behind."

Senator Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel, also urged Linger and the board to take a more proactive approach.

"We're looking for some leadership. You're asking for some bold moves here, so there's no point in you being timid in asking us what you need. Most of us recognize there's a need for change. Come to us and tell us what we need to do," he said.

Linger said the education committee's request was music to his ears and admitted there is much regulation that prohibits the board's goals for change. In the past year, the board has worked to eliminate 60 policies to lessen "overly burdensome" guidelines, Linger said.

"We wanted to be careful and think it through and not be so bold to say that we demand the Legislature do something. How strong can you be without offending someone by demanding that the Legislature do something? " Linger asked the committee.

One of those recommendations the board feels strongly about is downsizing the Department of Education, which the audit said was overly bureaucratic, and redistributing some personnel to Regional Educational Service Agencies to work on a county level.

The board also wants to improve its teacher evaluation system and plans to establish a committee as soon as next month that will better define "teacher effectiveness" in order to measure progress and hold the right people accountable, Linger said.

Other primary goals, what Linger referred to as "the big rocks," include allowing principals more control of funding and hiring and firing, emphasizing individual learning with technology, and collaborating with career and technical centers to provide options for at-risk students.

Several members of the committee expressed concerns about how too much professional development keeps teachers out of the classroom and questioned why the audit response lacked much of a focus on student absences.

"Frankly, it is an attitude change. The audit has set the stage for a change in culture regarding education. No more building-delivered, teacher-focused, time-bound learning. We are not satisfied with out current levels of performance. I just urge that we do it in a thoughtful way ... and not just a knee-jerk reaction to the audit," Linger said.

But Delegate Brian Savilla, R-Putnam, said as a longtime teacher, his concern is with the system as a whole.

"My question is simple: why are you here? Why do we have a Department of Education?" Savilla asked Linger.

Savilla said the Department of Education has a "strong hand" on county school systems and most of the board's recommendations aren't going to fix that.

"Since the department was created, we've seen an increase of everything. On the contrary, we haven't seen an increase in academics. I see a lot of quick fixes - throwing more money at things. What justifies you all being here and not giving power to the county level, which I think could do a better job at handling it?" Savilla said.

Linger said the board is "stepping up to the plate" and Savilla's concerns will be a thing of the past.

"Taxpayers in West Virginia are among the top in the nation contributing to education in terms of median salaries, but performance is at the other end of the scale, and the board is very aware of that," Linger said. "In this audit response... we're willing to take bold steps. There's no one on this board that's satisfied with being at the bottom of the barrel."

While the audit, conducted by Pennsylvania firm Public Works LLC at the request of the governor, claims up to $90 million in annual savings for West Virginia if all of its recommendations are carried through, Linger said " no-brainer" changes to professional development, the school transportation system and other areas could save $17 million almost instantly.

"There has been a lot of press about the savings this thing would create. We really went through trying to see where savings were and get into the spending netted out. It got too complicated," he said. "We need to know a lot more about how deep we want to go into this thing to know what money is saved so we can know where it can be spent."

The committee's concerns voiced Tuesday is telling of the Department of Education's new direction, Linger said.

"I think that's indicative of where we are right now. Everything is up for question now. If somebody can ask why does the Department of Education exist in a serious question, that tells you everything is on the table, and we welcome that," he said. "I was especially pleased with how positive the committee seems to be and was a little surprised they asked us to be more bold.

"I thought we were already being bold," he said. "I look forward to reporting back to the [state] board and coming back to the committee with an actual agenda and challenging them to work through it."

At the committee's request, Linger will be present at the next meeting to further discuss the audit and examine the Department of Education's staff and the state board's plans to downsize personnel.

The board will meet in December to prioritize immediate actions listed in the audit response.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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