CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After several hours of discussion, the state Board of Education voted to approve its response to the governor's efficiency audit and agreed to accept public input on the 130-page draft released Wednesday.
The board made minor changes to its response at Wednesday's meeting, but the main goals remained the same: Recruit and reward teachers, raise educational quality statewide, align education with workforce needs, increase technology in schools and maximize efficiencies.
At the request of board members Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips, who announced plans to resign after state superintendent Jorea Marple's sudden termination last week, the board agreed to make the response a "living document" which is contingent on the public's recommendations.
The board pored over the audit's more than 100 recommendations for five hours during Wednesday's meeting before deciding to post the response to the Department of Education's website and opening it up for future revisions. The board will present its current draft to the state Legislature next week.
"We want all of the input we can get. We are actively asking the public to weigh in on this thing, and there's no reason why we can't bring this back up and change it with input from [the] public," said board President Wade Linger. "There's no reason why this can't be a living document -- it should be."
Haden worried that although the board had met numerous times to address the audit, the public might not understand all the specifics of its intent. The board's response to the audit was not released until Wednesday afternoon -- the same day they were scheduled to vote it through.
"My main concern is a lack of transparency that has occurred with this whole event. This report was embargoed and our public just received it today. They have no ability to question it because they haven't read it," Haden said.
Haden left the meeting feeling confident about the board's process and thankful for the board's push for transparency considering recent controversies.
The board agreed with most of the audit's recommendations, excluding a few suggestions. Most of the ones they disagreed with called for consolidating some of the School Building Authority's responsibilities in order to avoid overlap and ultimately save costs.
The audit, conducted by Pennsylvania firm Public Works LLC for $750,000 about a year ago, projects up to $90 million in annual savings if all of the recommendations are applied.
But Linger said it's not that easy.
"One of the questions that kept coming up with this is how much money are we going to save? ... I hope that by implementing recommendations, we can save that much a year," he said. "But can we really point to the budget where to find it? I don't think so. Remember, it's not all that easy to go through there.
"We can agree with a lot of these things, but to actually find where auditors thought the money was going to come from isn't that easy, and it's not because we didn't try," he said.
Board members urged that the response is still a work in progress.
"This is not the end-all document. This is the beginning. It will continue to evolve over time," said board member Michael Green. "We have used the word transparency over and over, and the purpose of this is to encourage transparency and make sure stakeholders work together in a new way to address this."
Board member Lloyd Jackson said Wednesday's special session was one of the best meetings he had ever been to and said the thorough discussion of the state's policies was much needed.
"The audit has brought a lot of angst in a lot of circles, and that's a good thing. The important thing is that we had to confront all of the recommendations even if we didn't agree with everything," Jackson said. "Our response wasn't just about the audit -- it's about what the board thinks we ought to do going forward."
Tension surrounding Marple's abrupt firing last week hung over Wednesday's meeting. Citizens in delegations expressed their outrage with the state board and urged Haden and Phillips to reconsider their resignations.
Jackson was not present in last week's meeting when the board voted on Marple's termination and said Wednesday that he was at Disney World with his family. He did not comment whether he would have voted to fire Marple, but said he is pleased with the board's direction.
The audit response, "From Audit to Action: Students First," listed areas of primary focus. The board members want to:
n Develop, reward and retain great educators by creating a plan to better prepare and recruit teachers. They also want to establish a new educator evaluation system and improve teacher compensation. The board supports exploring recommendations such as offering low-cost loans to educators and rewarding teachers in "hard-to-staff" subjects and areas of the state.
n Raise educational quality statewide by "re-imagining" instructional time and changing the organization of the traditional school-year calendar in order to "minimize the summer learning loss." The board also wants to focus on revising the state's school accreditation system and wants a system that combines efforts of the department, the Regional Education Service Agencies and other educational input. Changes to the system would require the Legislature to eliminate current code barriers in order for policy change.
n Align education to workforce needs and careers and prepare West Virginia students for their future by "addressing the middle skill gap." The board wants to foster career-technical centers and increase cross counseling in order to provide a more seamless curriculum for students, which would require more flexibility in state legislation. The goal is to get more students to seek some sort of education after high school.
n Empower learning through technology by more personalized education, promote 24-7 learning and expand digital content. The board suggests new guidelines that allow students to use their smartphones and other devices during lessons and calls for more technology support and Internet access.
n Maximize operational efficiencies by reorganizing the Department of Education, redefining administration, assessing county boards and streamlining the system. About 30 positions are currently vacant and are being reviewed so that only critical spots are filed, according to the report.
The board also wants to help small counties create job-sharing arrangements and consolidate responsibilities dealing with professional development, or staff training. The board also wants to expand the work of RESAs. The board will present its findings during the interim meeting Tuesday.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.