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McKinley Architects & Engineers

The Thrasher Group

December 22, 2016 - Volume 36 Issue 11


“For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice.” – T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), American born English editor, playwright and critic

 

The West Virginia Board of Education has decided to return full control of the Gilmer County school system to the county school board on January 6. The state board took that action after receiving a recommendation from Susan O’Brien, director of the Office of Education Performance Audits (OEPA).

“The West Virginia Board of Education is pleased to return control to Gilmer County schools,” Mike Green, state board president, said. “We have thoroughly reviewed the OEPA reports and feel confident in returning control back to the Gilmer County Board of Education. We believe the best days are ahead for the students in Gilmer County.”

However, the state board agreed to return local control only if the following conditions are met:

  • The current superintendent, Gabriel Devono, must remain in office until June 30 unless he and the county school board reach mutual agreement to end his contract.
  • The county school board must post the superintendent’s position and fill it by July 1.
  • The current superintendent retains all rights to apply for the position if he wants it and must receive the same consideration as all applicants.

The state school board declared the Gilmer County schools to be in a state of emergency in 2011. Since then the state board and the Office of Education Performance Audits have been working directly with the school system to improve curriculum, policy, finance, facilities, personnel, transportation and the school calendar. In 2013, the state board returned local control over curriculum, policies, general finances, transportation and the school calendar after the school system showed progress in those areas. Last July, the school system also regained control over personnel. That left two areas of control, facilities and finances, which the state board decided to hand over earlier this month.

The state board’s conditions for returning total control to Gilmer County will be governed by a memorandum of understanding that outlines the exit strategy for the state board and lays out a two-year provision oversight period. It allows for continued monitoring of the school district’s performance in areas noted in the initial performance audit and is expected to help ensure a smooth and successful transition.

 

By Jim Wallace

As members of the West Virginia Legislature head toward their 2017 regular session, they face the task of making sense of conflicting reports about the roles of Regional Education Service Agencies and the related subject of how school districts can share services to be more efficient and save money.

On one side, the Performance Evaluation and Research Division (PERD) of the Legislative Auditor’s Office found that the RESA system is inefficient, duplicative and redundant, so it should be dismantled. On the other side, representatives of the state school board, RESA and the West Virginia School Board Association have told legislators that RESAs are important and valuable, although they do need to be restructured.

Further, WVSBA Executive Director Howard O’Cull has told legislators and the state board that restructured RESAs would be more useful in helping the public education system be more efficient and save money than continuing an effort to see if school districts should share more central office services.

PERD has recommended keeping some of the RESAs services but without the current RESA structures. Instead, PERD would have the Department of Education directly control those services.

John Sylvia, director of PERD, presented his agency’s report to a combined meeting of the Joint Committee on Government Organization, the Joint Committee on Government Operations and the Joint Standing Committee on Education. He said technical assistance and professional development are the two most important functions of RESAs, but PERD found that only 18 percent of RESA expenditures are for those services.

“PERD concludes that there is inadequate direction, focus and resources centered on the important tasks of providing technical assistance to low-performing schools and professional staff development.” – John Sylvia

“PERD concludes that there is inadequate direction, focus and resources centered on the important tasks of providing technical assistance to low-performing schools and professional staff development,” Sylvia said. “We found that, on average, 25 percent of RESA services in fiscal 2015 were for programs that do not serve county school systems.”

Those services include adult education, public service training and workforce development programs, he said. RESA 1 and RESA 3 spent almost 40 percent of their funds on such services, Sylvia said.

The state pays $100,000 to $200,000 annually for the coordination of RESAs with the state board and county districts, he said, and added that top positions at RESAs might not be necessary.

“We find that there is duplication and redundancy in having RESA executive directors over several major programs that are actually overseen or directed by the [Department of Education],” Sylvia said. “The legislative auditor does not intend to demean the services that the RESA executive directors provide. However, the reality is that when RESAs became extensions of the state, it created significant inefficiencies in the use of state funds. The eight executive director positions are costing the state more than $1 million.”

In a written response, the RESAs said their planning and coordination eliminate duplication, but Sylvia said, “The legislative auditor found that statement to be unreasonable.”

The state is paying more than $540,000 for each RESA to have a chief financial officer, he said, but in four of the eight RESAs, the fiscal agent of the lead county takes care of all financial matters with the RESAs reimbursing the lead counties for that. Thus, he said, the RESA CFO positions are redundant and could be eliminated.

“This leads to the conclusion that the county-level services that RESAs provide can continue without RESAs.” – John Sylvia

“This leads to the conclusion that the county-level services that RESAs provide can continue without RESAs,” Sylvia said. “The counties are able to continue those shared service arrangements as evidenced by four of the RESAs having the fiscal agents manage all financial matters of those shared service agreements.”

Having RESA staff come under the department would improve coordination of professional development, he said. Thirteen entities, including RESAs, have legislative mandates to address professional development in the public school systems, he added.

“In conclusion, we find that RESAs provide valued services, but the RESA system as a whole is inefficient and is best addressed by restructuring it,” Sylvia said. “The regional service purpose or the core regional services are needed and should be continued, but these regional services should not be provided through the concept of independent and autonomous agencies. The core services should come from regional staff of the [Department of Education] not regional agencies. Restructuring RESAs in this way would present opportunities to eliminate significant duplication and redundancies. RESAs have done a commendable job in establishing the groundwork for coordinated county-level services. However, what RESAs have started in terms of shared services can be continued by the counties themselves.”

Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, welcomed PERD’s findings. He said the legislature gives $3.6 million to the RESAs and could save money by not paying for the RESA executive directors.

“I’m going to look this over,” Hall said about the PERD report. “I think it’s really helpful as we look at the budget this year.”

Silvia said, “The core RESA services are needed, but you do not need them to operate through independent agencies.” He repeated that the RESA staffs should become regional staff members of the Department of Education.

However, one legislator proposed a contrary view. “What if we did not have the board of education doing this work and the counties and the RESAs were more prevalent?” Delegate Michael Moffatt, R-Putnam, asked. “Rather than having it a top-down, controlled-by-Charleston operation, why not have the counties and the RESAs be the lead and be closer to the people as opposed to the strong arm of Charleston?”

“That is certainly an option,” Silvia said. He added that the education efficiency audit that was conducted a few years ago indicated that there is a need for more centralization in some areas and more decentralization in other areas. The legislature would have to address that, he said.

“If RESAs become regional staff of the [Department of Education], you eliminate one additional entity to coordinate,” Silvia said. “If the department has these as regional staff, they can look at what’s taken place and maybe streamline them. There may be opportunities for streamlining in that area.”

Part of Silvia’s report contradicted his conclusions. That was on results of surveys of school superintendents and principals to get their views of RESAs.

“Overall, the comments were positive,” Silvia said. “Twenty-five of the 34 superintendents that responded indicated that they felt there would be significant adverse effects if RESAs were discontinued, while nine of the 34 that responded felt that there would be minimal to no adverse effects. For principals, 65 percent felt there would be significant adverse effects if RESAs were discontinued, while 34 percent felt there would be minimal to no adverse effects.”

“We respect the fact that the auditors did as good a job as they possibly could, but let me make this very clear: The RESAs are an extremely important part of our education ecosystem here in West Virginia.” – Mike Green

Mike Green, president of the state school board, briefly addressed the legislative meeting, mainly to say that the board would defer its response to the PERD report until January. “We respect the fact that the auditors did as good a job as they possibly could, but let me make this very clear: The RESAs are an extremely important part of our education ecosystem here in West Virginia,” he said.

Representing RESAs, Nick Zervos, executive director of RESA 6, also said the RESAs would defer most of their comments until the next legislative meeting on the subject in January. But he had a bit more to say than Green did.

RESAs use a performance-based accountability model that relies on measured criteria to evaluate performance, Zervos said. “The RESAs find it disheartening that the legislative audit was not done in accordance with proper assessment protocol,” he said. “The legislative audit did not establish an appropriate measuring gauge to evaluate the level of technical assistance or level of professional development performed by the RESAs. The legislative audit did not properly assess the state board’s required strategic planning process, and it aligns goals, objectives, resources to ensure the proper use of resources at the state board’s disposal. The legislative audit so badly interpreted the legislative intent that the implementation stands in complete contrast to the recent Supreme Court case in Monongalia County.”

In the Supreme Court case Zervos referred to, the Monongalia County school board contended that it should be allowed to work through its RESA to hire interventionists to provide additional instruction in mathematics and reading to certain students. On the other side, the American Federation of Teachers contended that the board should go through the regular process of hiring teachers for those positions.

“In general, the PERD report provides no tangible data to accurately gauge the level of effort. It just provided inaccurate explanation of budget and relation to each other. Data that would provide reasonable measures was either refused, ignored or not presented in the report.” – Nick Zervos

Zervos further argued in his presentation to legislators that PERD provided no quantifiable or verifiable data to support any of its recommendations. “In general, the PERD report provides no tangible data to accurately gauge the level of effort,” he said. “It just provided inaccurate explanation of budget and relation to each other. Data that would provide reasonable measures was either refused, ignored or not presented in the report.”

In conclusion, Zervos said, “In the absence of sound data, the audit uses outdated past reports without acknowledging subsequent concrete steps to address each of the report’s recommendations.” He promised to say more on the subject in January.

WVSBA report finds RESA should be restructured but kept.

In a separate legislative meeting this month, O’Cull presented a 62-page report with the WVSBA’s findings based on regional meetings to explore shared services among county school districts. In the process, he offered support for RESAs although with some restructuring. He later presented his report to the state school board.

“I don’t think we need to disparage the concept of RESAs. They are very valuable. They can provide very valuable services. They seem to be adrift. That happens to agencies all the time. Mission creep, things like that – of course, in government that does occur.” – Howard O’Cull

“I don’t think we need to disparage the concept of RESAs,” O’Cull told members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. “They are very valuable. They can provide very valuable services. They seem to be adrift. That happens to agencies all the time. Mission creep, things like that – of course, in government that does occur.”

Further, he said, “RESAs do need to be effectively equipped for the task of sharing of services by being revised, reorganized, and I think to a large extent, restructured so they can focus on student achievement.”

RESAs have six required areas of work, but student achievement and providing high-quality professional development are the most important, O’Cull said. RESAs have gotten into many entrepreneurial pursuits, partly because they need money to operate, he said, but that wasn’t the main issue.

O’Cull said, “The issue here is: Are the RESAs working with county boards to the extent they are helping and being part of increasing student achievement?” He said that, if entrepreneurial pursuits are distracting RESAs from providing required services, then they might need to quit doing those entrepreneurial activities.

Although he had much to say about RESAs, O’Cull’s main reason for appearing before legislators was to deliver the third of three reports required by House Bill 2940 from 2013 on regional meetings that explored how school districts might share more services. The regional meetings in 2013, 2014 and this year involved superintendents and school board members from all 55 school districts in West Virginia. O’Cull, who delivered previous reports in 2013 and 2014, said 151 groups worked on the issues during the meetings. Many issues, including turf wars, come up when considering shared services, he said.

“A lot of services could be shared if barriers were removed in the School Aid Formula,” O’Cull said. Findings from the report from the Commission on School District Governance and Administration from 2015 would move counties more into that direction, he said, but nothing has happened with that report since the state board accepted it.

“The real savings – if you want to look at savings and sharing of services – will not occur with central office administrators because of the number,” O’Cull said. “But rather, it will have to occur with what was termed back-office services. That’s herculean to do. That’s controversial. It needs to be discussed more. It needs to be seen if that’s a viable concept.”

Many reports in past years that might have improved the educational system have gotten hung up in politics, reluctance to change and turf wars, he said, adding that he hoped that would not happen with his latest report. He said the report makes four “truly rational” recommendations. Here are the recommendations and O’Cull’s explanations of them:

  1. Revise Existing Statute Requiring Shared Services Meetings: The regional meetings required by House Bill 2940 should cease in their current form. They are done best by regional councils. O’Cull said the RESA regional councils would have to put into place any recommendations. “So we put it in their lap,” he said. “We want the regional councils to assume this responsibility, but then we decided there needs to be accountability.”
  2. Configuring RESA Services: Determine the efficacy of RESA services, including new services that might be provided. The RESA directors would welcome that because it would move them into services that districts want, O’Cull said. A lot of reporting to the state board, the legislature, county boards and others looking continuously at sharing services, should be required, he said. “But we go a step further here,” O’Cull said. “I think this is a pivotal point.” The governor should appoint a statewide committee that would look continuously at sharing of services and particularly efficiencies in the system, he said, because that would prevent reports from being issued and not implemented. A 1989 law allows the sharing of central office administrators, but there are difficulties with it, he said, and it should be revised.
  3. County-Secured Shared Services: Remove restrictions in law that hamper the sharing of services among counties and encourage best practices. Then the Office of Education Performance Audits should evaluate RESAs on the degree of their ability and willingness to explore services of that nature.
  4. Innovation: Promote a series of innovations that could improve county boards’ effectiveness and efficiencies. “If we want to truly move in the direction of a system that really is ready for the future, we do need some innovation,” O’Cull said. “We do need to move out from some of the current practices.”

“We can’t just tinker around the edges here. That’s what we’ve done for years. We call it innovation after we’re finished and we move on to the next issue.” – Howard O’Cull

At a time of retrenchment and scarce resources, legislators are forced to make priorities, he said. “We can’t just tinker around the edges here,” O’Cull said. “That’s what we’ve done for years. We call it innovation after we’re finished and we move on to the next issue.”

Everything boils down to student achievement, he said, so the education system must be reconnected to that concept.

Many people oppose the new A-through-F grading system for schools, and it does have flaws, O’Cull said, but the WVSBA took a different stance. He said many people have asked what to do to help schools improve their grades when they lack resources and laws constrain what they might do. School boards need resources, including teachers, funding and professional development, he said.

“Everything we’ve mentioned here comes under the aegis of RESAs,” O’Cull said. “They could provide these services, and I think the state board really needs to be asked if RESAs will be directed to do this.”

At the end of his presentation to legislators, he said, “The real equation is: Are we shortchanging our students, and can regional services be a way to make that a better process?”

Delegate Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, asked whether RESA boundaries should be reconfigured to reflect population shifts. O’Cull said the report addresses that.

O’Cull made a similar presentation to the West Virginia Board of Education. He said the overarching aim of the whole public education system is a focus on student achievement, but he noted that budget constraints have put West Virginia government into a state of retrenchment.

Many school board members and other leaders in the education system are apologetic about the system, O’Cull said. They talk about having not enough money, too many regulations, not having parents who work with and not having students with enough stakes in the game, he said. What he hears most frequently is that they would like the state board and the legislature to leave them alone and not put too many thempolicies into place, he said.

The regional meetings of school board members and superintendents were designed to see how things could be done better, O’Cull said, but by focusing on sharing services among central office personnel, they ostensibly related to only 680 people. Many of those central office people have multiple job descriptions and duties, he said. Difficulties in sharing services include the vagaries of geography, restrictions of federal funds that pay for many positions and possible losses in state funding from the School Aid Formula, he said.

“The eight RESAs, especially at times of retrenchment, are best postured, I think, to provide efficiencies, although…there may need to be some restructuring of intent and purpose to get at this particular goal.” – Howard O’Cull

O’Cull said efficiencies can occur at the board level and at the regional level. “The eight RESAs, especially at times of retrenchment, are best postured, I think, to provide efficiencies, although…there may need to be some restructuring of intent and purpose to get at this particular goal,” he said. That would move them away from activities that don’t relate to student achievement, he said.

“The state board does need to provide clarity as to how RESAs fit into the entire mix of efficiencies since RESAs do have two other chief duties: working with low-performing schools…and also providing staff development,” O’Cull said. “In order to meet the greater vision that you have espoused for achievement, I think there does need to be some re-examination of the RESA role.”

As he said to legislators, he told the state school board that many county school boards are looking for guidance for improvement especially following their receipt of the A through F grades. He said the grades are causing many people to look at their schools. “There must be buy-in all the way from classrooms to the state board,” O’Cull said.

After presenting the four recommendations from his report, he said, “I think retrenchment can be both positive and negative. The positive is that it does require the determination of priorities. We have to be sure that our children are the only and best priority that we strive to work for.”

State board member William White said the board should have more discussion about the issues O’Cull brought up. “One of the biggest issues I have is that there’s such a miniscule appropriation from the legislature that goes into RESAs, and many of the things that we require them to do would never happen without grants,” he said. “And so these folks are busting their butts to get grants to make sure that they can do some of the things that are mandated by the legislature and are not funded.”

“If it weren’t for their entrepreneurship and their entrepreneurial nature, many of the things we need to have done in the RESAs wouldn’t get done.” – William White

White added, “If it weren’t for their entrepreneurship and their entrepreneurial nature, many of the things we need to have done in the RESAs wouldn’t get done.”

Another state board member, James Wilson, agreed with O’Cull about getting rid of the regional meeting required by House Bill 2940. “The purpose of the meetings has to change,” he said. “I attended two, and they didn’t accomplish anything.”

Wilson said it should be up to RESAs to figure out what they should do and what their configuration should be. He added that many people ask to do away with state board requirements, but when asked for specific requirements to eliminate, they generally don’t have anything to say.

The PERD report about RESAs and the WVSBA report on the regional meetings about shared services are available on the WVSBA’s website at: http://wvsba.org/reports/reports-regarding-regional-servicesresas.

 

By Jim Wallace

State Supt. Michael Martirano is urging legislators to put a priority on improving pay for teachers and providing incentives for teachers in areas of critical needs even though they are facing another year in which it will be difficult to balance the state budget.

“We’re having difficulty recruiting and retaining individuals from out of state,” he told the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. Other states, including Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky, are taking West Virginia teachers away, particularly in the Eastern Panhandle counties because of West Virginia’s lack of competitiveness in salaries, Martirano said.

“I recognize where we are with our budget, but the future of our state is predicated on the people that are running our programs in our classrooms,” he said. “One of the things that is unique to our state is the number of homegrown teachers. I have never seen more teachers that are teaching in the elementary, middle and high schools of which they attended.”

For example, he said, at Oak Hill High School in Fayette County, more than two-thirds of the teachers attended that school. “Thank goodness we have dedicated West Virginians who want to stay here and live here, but we are seeing that we have an incredible number of teachers who are leaving,” Martirano said. “That creates vacancies.”

Last year, West Virginia had 65 bona fide math vacancies, he said, and that should trouble legislators who are concerned about lagging math scores. The majority of the vacancies were at the high school and middle school levels, he said. If each of those teachers had at least 100 students, that would represent 6,500 to 10,000 students who are being educated by teachers who are not fully certified, Martirano said.

“If we continue to have vacancies in our classrooms, that’s what I’m defining as our biggest crisis educationally right now. If that continues, that will diminish the educational delivery, so I’m ringing that bell loudly. Recognizing the challenges we have with our budget, we have to do something regarding our teacher compensation and ways to stabilize that.” – Supt. Michael Martirano

“If we continue to have vacancies in our classrooms, that’s what I’m defining as our biggest crisis educationally right now,” he said. “If that continues, that will diminish the educational delivery, so I’m ringing that bell loudly. Recognizing the challenges we have with our budget, we have to do something regarding our teacher compensation and ways to stabilize that.”

Martirano conceded that his plan has a hefty price tag, but he said that McDowell County had 70 vacancies out of 225 teaching positions last year – “meaning that 70 classrooms were being taught by teachers who were not fully certified.” He said people in other parts of the state wouldn’t tolerate that.

“We should not have our educational system defined by the ZIP code of which young people live,” Martirano said. “What we’re about is equity and access to provide a high-quality education to all children. And something that I am very proud of is how persistent we have been by closing that access and equity gap regarding the facilities through the SBA.”

For example, he said, he is happy that the Department of Education and the School Building Authority are moving to replace “deplorable” facilities in Fayette County.

Standards should remain in place.

Martirano also indicated he hopes legislators will not waste time on trying again to change West Virginia’s education standards or statewide assessments.

“Our standards are high. We can’t continue to tweak those. We need to let those to continue to advance.” – Supt. Michael Martirano

“Our standards are high,” he said. “We can’t continue to tweak those. We need to let those to continue to advance.”

The state school board will look at assessments after receiving recommendations from the Education Alliance, Martirano assured legislators. He said adjustments are needed at the high school level, and the state board will discuss with legislators how to strengthen assessments.

To address the teacher pay issue, Martirano said, legislators should consider a multi-year salary package. “We need to recognize that we need to provide an increase to the base salary,” he said. “The average teacher salary – the base salary – has fallen so far behind that we are way out of the realm of competitiveness.”

West Virginia ranks 47th in salary although not in academic achievement, Martirano said, and other states have made major changes in the last year to increase teacher salaries.

“The biggest concern I have is in the geographically isolated areas, the areas such as Mingo and McDowell, areas where we can’t provide the necessary support,” he said. “How we look at that is a differentiated pay.”

Another of his suggestions is to create something like a teacher corps. “Give me three years and we’ll pay off your student loan,” Martirano said.

There is a national shortage of teachers, especially male teachers and minority teachers, he said. “This is a competitive business, and we’re nowhere near close to being competitive,” he said.

Martirano called for pay incentives for critical need areas. He said that, for the first time in his education career of more than 30 years, there are shortages in elementary teaching positions. He said he never thought he would see that.

“It’s all about money,” Martirano said. Other states are offering more money, and young teachers are savvy, he said. They are looking at salaries and benefits, he said.

Giving a personal example, Martirano said his son is a second-year teacher in a large high school near Baltimore who makes $48,000 and gets tuition reimbursement for studying for his master’s degree and other compensation. By contrast, West Virginia teachers start out with much lower pay, he said, and when they face increased costs for health insurance through the Public Employees Insurance Agency, they get the equivalent of salary decreases.

In addition, he said, when it was decided that public employees would not be able to carry over sick leave from year to year and use that accumulated sick leave for additional years of service upon retirement, teachers started looking at their 15 sick and personal days as days off. That creates more teacher absences, Martirano said. In many ways, West Virginia’s education system is doing well structurally but is being hurt by personnel issues.

“This issue is at the crisis level for our state, and my recommendation is that, at a time when our budget is under great shifts, that we cannot cut the educational budget any further.” – Supt. Michael Martirano

“This issue is at the crisis level for our state, and my recommendation is that, at a time when our budget is under great shifts, that we cannot cut the educational budget any further,” Martirano said. Two weeks before Thanksgiving, the Education Department endured another 1 percent cut in funding to school districts at mid-year, he said, and 13 counties are on the financial watch list for deficits at the end of the year.

In regard to the great number of teacher vacancies, Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, said it appears that districts are not re-advertising vacancies filled by uncertified teachers. Martirano agreed. He said some superintendents have hired retirees and long-term substitutes and failed to advertise the positions as being unfilled. They need to keep the positions open, so that newly educated teachers might fill them, he said.

Martirano said school districts need to have the ability to offer open contracts on the spot to promising candidates. Not being able to do that hurts their competitiveness, he said.

“I cannot allow classrooms to be taught by long-term subs that aren’t highly qualified,” he said. In regard to that problem, Martirano said, he went to Valley High School in Fayette County on the first day of school. He said the principal told him he had not one certified math teacher and not one certified English teacher. That diminishes quality, Martirano said. Principals have trouble enticing qualified teachers, he said, “so they want to hang onto somebody that is dependable who is showing up every day”

Calling it “a real quandary,” Martirano said he is concerned the hole is getting bigger. “Every county has a challenge in this area,” he said. “There’s not one county that’s fully staffed, that’s fully certified – not one.”

We have a crisis in West Virginia around our teaching and workforce staff.” – Supt. Michael Martirano

Noting that school systems’ budgets are 85 percent to 90 percent personnel, he said, “We have a responsibility to provide the very best teachers we can get, adjusting our personnel laws, adjusting our recruitment, breaking the mold and looking at different ways to recruit and retain. But I can tell you that I am not an alarmist. We have a crisis in West Virginia around our teaching and workforce staff.”

The shortages are not just for teachers, Martirano said, because schools also are having trouble filling positions for principals and superintendents. West Virginia school districts had 15 vacancies for superintendents this year, he said. He added that he wants to discuss that issue more with the legislature.

“Our standards are fine,” Martirano said. “We can tweak our assessments. Our accountability is moving forward. We’re doing all these wonderful things here.” But he added that hiring issues keep him up at night.

“You’ll certainly find a willing partner, I think, with our education committees in trying to address some of the issues you’ve described.” – Delegate Paul Espinosa

House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, responded that legislators welcome his suggestions. “You’ll certainly find a willing partner, I think, with our education committees in trying to address some of the issues you’ve described,” Espinosa said.

Martirano promised to provide a multi-pronged approach for fixing the problems to legislators and the state school board. He said policies and personnel laws will need to be adjusted and it would take several years to make all the changes.

 

By Jim Wallace

A little more than half a year after legislators fought an extended battle with the administration of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin over the state budget for the current fiscal year, Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss has warned that “some additional lifting” will be needed not only in the coming legislative session but also in the next several legislative sessions, which could further affect spending on public education.

“The six-year plan, as we sit here today, is not pretty and is unique in the context that it shows a structural hole continuing for the duration of the six-year plan – significant structural hole – and beyond that six years.” – Bob Kiss

“The six-year plan, as we sit here today, is not pretty and is unique in the context that it shows a structural hole continuing for the duration of the six-year plan – significant structural hole – and beyond that six years,” Kiss told a combined meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Finance and the Joint Select Committee on Tax Reform. Revenues will not keep pace with the structural hole, he said, so legislators must consider big cuts in spending or revenue increases or both. In June, the hole in the budget for the fiscal year that began in July was resolved only after the legislature approved an increase in taxes on tobacco.

When asked about the size of the structural hole in the budget this month, Kiss said, “I’m not uncomfortable saying north of $400 million.” Last week, Governor-elect Jim Justice said he could “never say never” to raising taxes after maintaining for months that he wanted to find a way to balance the budget without additional taxes or big cuts in government services.

Gov. Tomblin already has cut spending midway through the fiscal year. Kiss said those cuts totaled about $60 million with $31 million of that coming from the Department of Health and Human Resources and most that that – $25 million – coming from Medicaid. For the second year in a row, Tomblin even cut funding to public education. Although cuts to public education have been less than those to other agencies, governors in the past have generally avoided cuts that would affect the School Aid Formula that funds schools across the state.

Last year, Tomblin cut about $11 million from public education. He tried to make it a permanent cut in the base budget for the school system, but legislators refused to go along with that. However, Tomblin had to cut public education again this year by about $12.8 million with about $11.1 million of that coming from the School Aid Formula.

“We are desperately trying to not do significant harm to agencies and departments we believe have been cut about as far as they can be,” Kiss said. “There are some positive signs. There’s probably more negative than positive, but there are some positive signs on the revenue spectrum.”

When legislators address the budget in 2017, Kiss said, they will have to draw on some one-time revenues to close a $165 million gap. He said the Rainy Day Fund will be in play, but the administration would like to minimize use of it.

Mike McKown, state budget director, said the Rainy Day Fund has about $689 million minus a $50 million, six-month loan to the unemployment compensation fund.

The reason the state faces big budget holes is that revenues are not coming in at levels they had in the past. That is especially true for coal severance tax revenues since the big downturn in coal mining. Mark Muchow, deputy secretary of revenue, said the state collected revenues of $1.53 billion through November, which was short $91.5 million for the first five months of the fiscal year. Collections are slightly ahead of what they were last year, he said, but that’s with additional revenue from the tobacco tax and about $10 million diverted from the workers’ compensation program. Without those additions, the state would be running 3.6 percent behind last year’s collections, he said.

The tobacco tax is running ahead of projections by about $5.5 million, Muchow said. It is almost double collections from prior to the tax increase, he said.

Kiss said he hopes $25 million cut in the Medicaid program will be a one-time cut and the money will be restored next year.

“If you’re going to solve this problem, which is a structural hole in our budget, you can’t do it with across-the-board cuts,” Kiss warned, adding that Gov. Tomblin believes across-the-board cutting has gone about as far as it can without creating significant issues like layoffs and the inability for some agencies to operate.

“We believe, as much as we didn’t want to do it, that it was necessary to look at the School Aid Formula and try to do some cuts and reductions. That can’t be done without a statutory change, which only this legislature can do.” – Bob Kiss

If legislators want to do targeted cuts, some of them will require statutory changes, Kiss said. The School Aid Formula is an example, he said. “We believe, as much as we didn’t want to do it, that it was necessary to look at the School Aid Formula and try to do some cuts and reductions,” Kiss said. “That can’t be done without a statutory change, which only this legislature can do.”

Likewise, he said, some higher education cuts that have been discussed would require statutory changes.

Kiss said he could not recall a time when the state has faced such “a large structural hole” in the budget that would extend beyond the six-year period for which his department makes budget projections. He said the only way to close such a hole is through cuts or revenue measures, such as tax increases.

Some decisions could be very difficult, Kiss warned. For example, he said, the state has gone through a couple of budget sessions with no pay increases. “If you take the across-the-board pay increases out of the six-year plan and decide you just can’t do those, that’s in the $50 million range,” he said. “Additional money for [the Public Employees Insurance Agency] is also a significant number.”

The 2017 legislative session will begin in mid-February and run through mid-April.

 

By Jim Wallace

The 2017 version of the West Virginia Legislature will include a few dozen newly elected members in place of former members, stronger Republican control of the Senate and only a slight decline in Republican control of the House of Delegates. Also, a freshman senator is in line to become chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and the House Education Committee will get several new members.

The Senate will have more changes in top leadership positions than in the House. As a result of the November election, Republicans will have 22 of the 34 seats in the Senate with the other 12 in the hands of Democrats. During the past two years, the split was narrower with 18 Republicans and 16 Democrats.

Because Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, chose to run for governor instead of re-election to his Senate seat, the Senate must choose a new leader. The formal election of a new Senate president will come in January, but the Republicans already have effectively chosen Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, for that position. Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, had challenged Carmichael for the presidency. Carmichael has served as Senate majority leader since the Republicans took control of the Senate two years ago. He survived a tough re-election battle against a Democrat who had strong support from labor interests.

Among four parts of a platform Carmichael announced upon his selection by fellow Senate Republicans earlier this month was one calling for advancing the education system and letting local entities have more control. Other parts of the platform were to reduce state regulations, make West Virginia less friendly to lawsuits, and make the state’s tax structure more competitive.

Senate Democrats also will get new leadership. That’s because Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, chose to run for governor instead of re-election to the Senate. He served as Senate minority leader during the past two years, after serving as Senate president when the Democrats were in control. Senate Democrats have chosen Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, to be their leader in 2017.

Carmichael has chosen to give the Senate Education Committee new leadership by selecting newly elected Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, to be the chairman. Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, who served as chairman of the Education Committee during the past two years will instead serve as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Mann is a funeral director who formerly served on the Monroe County school board. He has been an opponent of Common Core education standards. Although state Supt. Michael Martirano and the state school board contend that West Virginia’s standards no longer are based on Common Core, not everyone is satisfied that is so.

“We put the right people in the right places…. I have extreme confidence in Kenny Mann.” – Sen. Mitch Carmichael

Asked on the MetroNews Radio Network’s Talkline show Wednesday about the changes, Carmichael said he did not move Sypolt to punish him for supporting Gaunch for Senate president. “We put the right people in the right places,” Carmichael said. “I have extreme confidence in Kenny Mann.” He added that Mann will provide “wonderful perspective” in his new role. In addition, Carmichael indicated that he did not want legislators to again consider changing West Virginia’s education standards. “I’m tired of changing these standards every two or three years,” he said.

Initially after the November election, it looked as though the Senate Education Committee might face very little change because only one senator who has been a committee member during the past two years won’t be back in the legislature next year. Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, decided not to run for re-election this year.

Because membership on committees is split among parties in about the same ratio as their standing in the overall body, the gains by Republicans in the Senate will mean they will have more members on committees and the Democrats will have fewer. Thus the 14-member Senate Education Committee can be expected to go from an eight-to-six Republican-Democratic split to a nine-five split.

In the House of Delegates, Democrats had a net gain of just one seat. That means that the number of Republicans will drop from 64 to 63 and Democrats will increase from 36 to 37. House Republicans intend to keep Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, in his leadership post. Delegate Tim Miley, D-Harrison, is expected to remain as the minority leader. Miley served as speaker when the Democrats last controlled the House more than two years ago.

The House Education Committee will have several changes in membership because about one-third of the members who served on the committee over the past two years will not be back in 2017. Chairman Paul Espinosa, D-Jefferson, won re-election and is expected to continue to serve as chairman, but Vice-Chairman Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, chose not to run for re-election.

Other members of the House Education Committee who won’t return to the legislature in 2017 include: David Perry, D-Fayette; Frank Blackwell, D-Wyoming; Denise Campbell, D-Randolph; David Evans, R-Marshall; Brian Kurcaba, R-Monongalia; Don Perdue, D-Wayne; and Patsy Trecost, D-Harrison.

About one-third of the House will consist of newly elected members, although several of them previously served in the legislature.

 

By Jim Wallace

The West Virginia Department of Education has high hopes for the state’s new system for grading public schools, but at least one teachers’ organization leader has expressed doubts about the fairness of the system.

“We’re extremely serious about improving academic achievement for our young people in West Virginia.” – Supt. Michael Martirano

“We’re extremely serious about improving academic achievement for our young people in West Virginia,” state Supt. Michael Martirano said on Talkline on the MetroNews Radio Network shortly after the mid-November release of the first set of grades.

“We have a social and moral responsibility to ensure high-quality education for all of our children,” he said. “When we provide this targeted, focused approach, schools that are D’s and F’s can now look into those data points and seek ways to improve.”

But Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, also on Talkline, said his organization objects to the new grading system. “Teachers don’t mind accountability,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we embrace accountability, but this is a single snapshot on a single day or a single few days of the school year, and it’s based predominantly on the test.”

Lee added, “We have been against the A-to-F [grading system] from the very inception because it relies too heavily on a single measure, and that’s a test score.”

However, Martirano said that the new system takes into account multiple measures – including attendance, graduation rates and indicators of college- and career-readiness. He said that, if a school is not achieving in a particular area, it needs to refocus its resources on getting better results.

But Lee said standardized test grades account for 83 percent of school grades at the elementary and middle school levels and 73 percent at the high school level. That’s too much in his opinion, and he would prefer a system that puts the same weight on tests for all schools.

“If it’s based on true, fair measures across the board, the concept is not that bad. But we’re basing it on a test.” – Dale Lee

“If it’s based on true, fair measures across the board, the concept is not that bad,” Lee said. “But we’re basing it on a test.” He also complained that many middle school and high school students don’t take their tests seriously.

“If we’re simply teaching the test to get these scores up, that’s the wrong thing to do in education,” Lee said.

Martirano said school district superintendents and principals were notified about their schools’ grades more than a month before they were released, so they had plenty of time to prepare for the release and address any issues with them. “We have a high level of engagement of using student data to make better decisions about improving performance of our students across the state,” he said.

The grading system has been in the works for almost four years. During their 2013 regular session, legislators passed a major education reform bill, Senate Bill 359. Among its provisions was one allowing the state school board to adopt a policy to define how to hold school accountable. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin got more specific in his 2014 State of the State address when he called on the state board to adopt a policy to assign grades of A through F to public schools around the state. That May, the board approved Policy 2320, which set up the new grading system to communicate progress in student achievement to parents, students and their schools.

In 2015, the federal government influenced the effort when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Acts to replace the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The new law requires each state to implement an accountability system of its choosing that is based on multiple measures. This past June, the state board adopted an amended Policy 2320, which provided for how the new grades would be measured at the 668 schools across the state.

The grades were awarded based on a bell curve, so most schools received C’s while relatively few received A’s and F’s. A’s went to 6.7 percent of schools, B’s went to 24.3 percent, C’s went to 53.3 percent, D’s went to 13.5 percent, and F’s went to 2.2 percent. A’s are supposed to represent “distinctive” student performance, B’s for “commendable” performance, C’s for “acceptable” performance, D’s for “unacceptable” performance, and F’s for “lowest” performance. Schools will be encouraged to work on their weaknesses to improve their grades, so grades in future years won’t necessarily fall along a bell curve.

“This is about support to our schools, not a gotcha. This is not about putting a scarlet letter on a school and saying, ‘You’re bad.’” – Supt. Michael Martirano

“This is about support to our schools, not a gotcha,” Martirano said. “This is not about putting a scarlet letter on a school and saying, ‘You’re bad.’”

Too often educators are criticized for not taking student achievement serious enough and using taxpayers’ dollars well, he said. “We are using our taxpayers’ dollars in a very judicious way to get better results for kids and taking it extremely serious,” Martirano said, adding that the best decisions on education are based on data.

But Lee was skeptical about how well the system would work. “The schools that got D’s and F’s, under the policy, the county is supposed to give them additional resources to help pull this grade up,” he said. “Well, the governor just cut $11 million more out of the education budget.” Some counties are strapped for money, so they can’t give more money, he said.

 

By Jim Wallace

Many people, including legislators and the state school superintendent, have called for improving pay for West Virginia teachers in recent years. Some of those proposals have been for giving teachers different levels of pay, based on such considerations as filling hard-to-fill positions and providing incentives to keep the best teachers.

Members of the legislature’s Joint Government Accountability, Transparency and Efficiency Committee brought in one authority on merit pay to their latest meeting to explain how it might work. Gary Ritter, faculty director of Office for Education Policy at University of Arkansas, told them that the jury is still out on the effectiveness of merit pay, but it is designed to counter the problem of pay structures that cause good teachers to move away from students who need them most.

Ritter said criticisms of merit pay include that it is unproven, it is too expensive, it forces competition, it’s not connected to instruction, the bonuses are too small, teachers already work hard, effectiveness is measured by a secret formula, it is too difficult to measure, teachers don’t teach for the money, it doesn’t account for teachers who teach non-tested subjects, it could lead to unproductive teaching to the test, and it could discourage teaching disadvantaged students. He then set out to refute those criticisms point by point:

  • It is unproven: “Any reform before we try it is unproven, and certainly the status quo is not effective. In other words, there is no evidence suggesting that master’s degrees lead to better teachers, so what we’re doing is also unproven. Calling merit pay an unproven reform is setting an unfairly high bar.”
  • It is too expensive: “It’s true it would cost money to add salary increases connected to performance, but we have current salary increases that are disconnected to performance. It would be possible, if policy makers are so inclined, to reallocate and use some of the salary increase money into performance-based pools.”
  • It could force competition: “It could force competition, and I would argue, it could force unproductive competition if the scheme were set up as a so-called zero-sum scheme that said, for example, the top 10 percent of teachers in our school will get bonuses and no one else. Well, if that’s the case, I might want to work with my fellow teacher because if she gets a bonus, that’s one more spot I can’t get.” That would not be a problem if you set up a system in which teachers get bonuses based on the extent to which they reach their individual goals.
  • It is disconnected to instruction: To build a useful plan, it should be connected to instruction. Have a portion that includes teacher observations. “Teacher ratings should certainly not only be based on student test scores, but it likely shouldn’t ignore student test scores either…. It should be based on a whole set of things that we believe teachers should do. In the same way, when baseball players get bonuses, it’s not based on only hitting or only fielding. It’s based on the whole of the baseball player’s contribution to the team.”
  • Bonuses are too small: Many prior plans have been put together with great effort but have provided only modest bonuses to teachers of about $750. “If you’re going to do that, I would suggest not wasting any of your time doing that. It wouldn’t be motivating. It wouldn’t change anyone’s desire to enter the field to maybe get $750 at the end of the year.” Do it only with significant bonuses.
  • Teachers already are working hard: That is true. “But it might allow us to encourage folks to work differently, try more innovation, be willing to take a risk and try something different if we think we might be rewarded for taking that risk. Currently, there’s almost no reward for taking a risk. The reward might be for keeping your head down and doing the same things you’ve always been doing.”
  • It is based on a secret formula: It should be based on a clear formula that teachers, policymakers and others can understand. “I can promise you that if you’re going to be rewarding me based on some formula that I don’t understand, I’m not going to be motivated by that reward possibility.”
  • Teacher quality is too difficult to measure: “It is difficult to measure, and we’re going to measure it imperfectly….But the current system provides zero rewards for teacher effectiveness or teacher performance. So you don’t want to hold an unreasonably high bar of utopia.”
  • Teachers don’t teach for the money: Money is one component of a compensation scheme. But certainly, more money is more desirable than less money. Many teachers say they would like a more supportive work environment, but it would be hard for policymakers to affect that.
  • Non-core subjects are left out: It is possible to structure a bonus system that would reward teachers in non-core subjects on measures not based on tests. It could include classroom observations, professionalism and supervisory evaluations. We don’t need a one-size-fits-all scheme.
  • It could lead to unproductive teaching to the test: That would be true only if the system provides rewards solely on students’ test scores.
  • It discourages teaching of disadvantaged students: “I would argue the reverse could be true.” You could give extra weight for boosting the scores of students who start in the lowest quartile or boosting the scores of disadvantaged students.

Ritter then offer these as the features of a good merit pay plan:

  • It should be straightforward.
  • It must be based on student growth, not levels of attainment. Otherwise you just reward teachers for having high socioeconomic status kids.
  • It should be based on multiple measures of effectiveness, partly because some teachers don’t have test scores and partly because teachers do many things that are not related solely to students’ test performance.
  • It should intentionally foster cooperation in schools. It should have both individual-based and team-based components.
  • It should be connected to a comprehensive improvement strategy.
  • Rewards should be large.

Asked if any state has implemented merit pay statewide, Ritter said none has done so yet. He said it always has been done at a district or school level. Florida almost did it, but the bill was vetoed in 2011, he said.

“There are small bonuses here and there,” Ritter said, but there are fewer than 50 schemes with substantial merit pay around the country, and fewer than 15 of them have been studied well. The results have been mixed, he said.

“It actually showed a decrease in student performance at the schools that received the bonuses.” – Gary Ritter

The results of a big New York study ended up being negative, Ritter said, but it was only team-based with no individual rewards. “It actually showed a decrease in student performance at the schools that received the bonuses,” he said.

One in Nashville with middle school math teachers randomly assigned teachers to get large bonuses up to $15,000 based on student achievement or not earn bonuses, Ritter said. The teachers with the opportunity to earn bonuses did better with fifth-grade students but not with sixth- through eighth-grade students, he said, “So we view this essentially as a null finding.” Others in Texas and Chicago have shown positive results, he said.

“The way we’ve tested it so far has only tested the motivation effect because these studies have lasted one or two years,” Ritter said, so it’s not surprising to get mixed results. On the other hand, none of the studies shows that the traditional structure is superior to merit pay, he said.

“So why engage in this traditional structure that is totally disengaged from performance when you could engage in one that at least makes more intuitive sense?” Ritter concluded.

 

By Jim Wallace

West Virginia legislators are entertaining potential legislation that would give more options to parents who choose home-schooling or private schools for their children. One proposal would lead to the establishment of education savings accounts. The other would allow home-schooled students and private school students to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities at public schools.

Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education heard from advocates of both proposals at their latest meeting. Those advocates included Garrett Ballengee, executive director of Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, which has advocated in the past against different forms of public spending.

“In my mind, there is no more serious long-term issue facing West Virginia than the one we’re discussing today.” – Garrett Ballengee

“In my mind, there is no more serious long-term issue facing West Virginia than the one we’re discussing today,” he told legislators. Education savings accounts allow students to receive a customized, flexible system of education that best fits each child’s needs, Ballengee said as he introduced Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, who produced a study on education savings accounts for the Cardinal Institute.

Butcher said that, if West Virginia would authorize education savings accounts, the state would place a portion of children’s funding from the School Aid Formula in private bank accounts that parents would use to buy educational products and services for those children.

Here is how he said the system works in Arizona: The parents get debit cards, and money gets deposited on the cards quarterly. Parents must fill out expense reports each quarter and send them to the state Department of Education to document how the money was used.

“For the first time, we have a solution that allows parents to completely customize a child’s education from top to bottom,” Ballengee said. It is more than just choice of schools, he said, because it could be used for tutors, online courses, private school tuition, college courses while still in high school and even for saving for college.

Four states are using education savings accounts to varying degrees. Ballengee said that more than 250,000 students are eligible for them in Arizona, about 30,000 in Florida, about 30,000 in Tennessee and about 30,000 in Mississippi. In Arizona, the number of children using the accounts has doubled each year since 2011 as legislators opened up eligibility, he said. Arizona began its program just for students with special needs and has since expanded it to include a wide range of students, he said. In Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida, children with special needs are eligible to use the accounts.

Another advocate of education savings accounts and other “school choice” program, Brittany Corona, director of state policy at EdChoice, told the committee that there are 31 school choice programs in 30 states plus the District of Columbia. She said more than 400,000 children are accessing education choice options, although some states have constitutional prohibitions against school choice.

“West Virginia’s constitution is friendly to school choice.” – Brittany Corona

“However, West Virginia’s constitution is friendly to school choice,” Corona said, so West Virginia could implement education choice policies that would withstand legal challenges.

Corona called education savings accounts the best policy to empower parents to collaborate with several education tools and providers to meet children’s learning needs. She said they transform school choice into education choice because parents are able to fully customize their children’s education. Parents can roll over funds from year to year, and any unused funds can go into college savings accounts, she aid.

Arizona approved education savings accounts, or ESAs, in 2011, Corona said, followed by Florida 2014 and Mississippi, Tennessee and Nevada in 2015, although implementation of Nevada’s program has been held up by a court challenge. She said Arizona handled eligibility incrementally by beginning with children with special needs and expanding each year until now it covers almost every student. Other states haven’t gone that far yet, she said, although Mississippi considered it this year and Tennessee is expected to consider it next year.

“States that have already passed ESAs are looking to expand ESAs even further, and this is because of the precedent that Nevada set in 2015 when they passed the first near-universal education savings account [law] in existence,” Corona said. All students who have been in school at least 100 days would be allowed to apply for Nevada’s program if the law survives its court challenge, she said.

Arizona and Nevada set their funding for education savings accounts at 90 percent of state funding for schools, Corona said. That’s about $5,000 for Arizona students who don’t have special needs, she said, and students with special needs get extra funding. In Nevada, education savings account funding is set at about $5,000, but students from low-income families can get up to almost $6,000, she said. In Tennessee and Mississippi, funding is set at about $6,600, she said, but funding in Florida varies because it is handled through annual appropriations from the legislature.

Arizona, Mississippi and Tennessee all administer their programs through their departments of education, Corona said, while Nevada and Florida have opted for different administration entities.

In regard to how such programs would affect funding for education, Martin Lueken, director of fiscal policy and analysis at EdChoice, told legislators, “In general, private school choice programs save states and save school districts money.” He contended that 25 out of 28 empirical studies he considered found that school choice programs save money, while the other three found them to be revenue neutral. The savings average about $3,000 per participant, he said, and broad eligibility programs save the most.

Lueken said those programs don’t drain resources from public schools. “These programs are tiny as compared to taxpayer spending on public schools,” he said, and would cost West Virginia less than 1 percent of the state’s budget for public education.

“Yes, these school choice programs use taxpayer funds, but these school choice programs also relieve public schools from educating these students.” – Martin Lueken

“Yes, these school choice programs use taxpayer funds, but these school choice programs also relieve public schools from educating these students,” Lueken said.

In preparation for his presentation, he said, he conducted a fiscal analysis of an education savings account program for West Virginia that would be similar to Nevada’s program. Students would be eligible if they: were enrolled in public school during the preceding semester, were enrolling in kindergarten or first grade for the first time, were enrolling in a West Virginia school for the first time or participated in the education savings account program in the prior academic year. Lueken set the education savings account amounts to equal 90 percent of the state’s share of the total basic program allowance per pupil. He said an education savings account would be worth $3,605, which is one-third of what is spent on a public school student in West Virginia. About 4 percent of eligible students would choose to use an education savings account in the first year, he said.

The state would save $3.8 million based on a conservative approach, Lueken contended. Local school districts would experience $44 million in reduced state revenue from state aid, he said, but it would be offset by averting $81 million in costs for education savings account students. He said the savings would be about $7,420 per student. “Thus, there will be a net positive local impact of $37 million,” he said.

Lueken called that a win-win for all citizens. “It can benefit families by expanding educational options and allowing better matches between the students and the kinds of education that they receive,” he said. “It can incentivize school districts to improve through greater competition, which would benefit their students. And it will do these things without harming school districts both fiscally and non-fiscally.”

The committee did not hear from anyone with views not in support of education savings accounts.

Proposal would allow home-schooled students to play on public school teams. 

On the issue of allowing home-schooled and private school students to participate in sports and other activities at public schools, the committee heard from Mike Donnelly, director of global outreach for Home School Legal Defense Advocates, which he said has about 1,000 members in West Virginia. If legislators take up his cause in their 2017 legislative session, it would revive an issue that failed to become law in the past. The legislation has been called the “Tim Tebow Bill” after a home-schooled student who had success in college football and, to a lesser extent, in professional football.

“Most states in the nation do allow for some form of public school access on the part of home-educated students.” – Mike Donnelly

“Most states in the nation do allow for some form of public school access on the part of home-educated students,” Donnelly said. Everyone pays taxes, so some people argue that access is only fair on the principle of social equity, he said.

Arguments he offered for the policy is that it is child-focused, helps build communities, improves diversity and improves the level of competition. He said the arguments against it are that it increases regulation on home-schooled students, strains public school funding and could hurt participation of fulltime public school students.

Donnelly said 26 states allow for home-schooled students to have access to public school curricular programs either by law or by local approval, 31 states allow it for sports, and 11 states single out extracurricular activities for being available to home-schooled students by law.

In West Virginia, participation by home-schooled students in public school classes is up to local school officials, he said, but rules of the Secondary School Activities Commission prohibit home-schoolers from participating in public school sports.

“People should not be able to manipulate the system,” Donnelly said. That would include dropping out of school but still participating in its sports, he said.

Heather Clawges, who said she is a concerned parent from Lewisburg, advocated for the proposed legislation on behalf of her 12-year-old son Jacob, who loves soccer, and her second-grade daughter Mia, who loves gymnastics, basketball and soccer. They attend private school.

“I want my children to feel like they’re included, and I want my children to feel like they have every chance possible to succeed in this state,” she said. When Jacob reached sixth grade, he lost all opportunity to play soccer in Greenbrier County, Clawges said, so she drives him 120 miles roundtrip to play in club soccer. Jacob’s class has only 11 kids and covers two grades, so there are not enough for a soccer team, she said.

“I’m trying to change the law, and it’s a very daunting process,” Clawges said. She said he got 1,800 signatures on a petition but added that it’s frustrating to her that the SSAC has two lobbyists working to influence legislators.

“There aren’t recreational opportunities for these children,” she said. “We live in rural West Virginia.”

Many states have developed solutions for such problems as far back as 1990, Clawges said. For example, she said, Florida has been doing this for 15 years and has about a 1 percent participation rate by home-schooled students in athletic programs. In West Virginia, that would be about 100 students per year, or one student for every three middle and high schools, she said.

 

By Jim Wallace

Public education leaders have told legislators that they’re finding ways to use the school calendar more creatively to ensure that students don’t miss too much when snow and other problems get in the way of holding classes.

Clayton Burch, chief academic officer in the Education Department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, told the Joint Standing Committee on Education that the department challenged school districts to re-create the school day to use time more wisely and to look at ways to recapture time lost to snow days.

In this, the first year of that effort, the department received 10 applications. Burch said nine of them focus specifically on handling days with inclement weather, while St. Albans High School in Kanawha County has been approved for a program to look at flexibility every day of the school year.

Clay County Supt. Kenneth Tanner explained to the committee that his district has received considerable flexibility with the ability to use snow packets for one to five days during the year. They may be used only after exhausting all six outside-school-environment days, he said. He noted that all schools in the county already exceed the required length for the school day.

Here is how Tanner said the program works: The packets are numbered and prepared in advance for each grade level. The materials include some review and have application activities. They are aligned with West Virginia’s standards. Clay County distributes them in hard copies and makes them available online. They also are available in the public library. Students have 10 school days to complete their work. The packets are to be graded.

“Clay County was the very last school district to finish school last year, and we believe this will have some positive advantages for our children. And we do not believe learning will be decreased.” – Kenneth Tanner

“Clay County was the very last school district to finish school last year, and we believe this will have some positive advantages for our children,” Tanner said. “And we do not believe learning will be decreased.”

Although Clay County ranks 54th economically among West Virginia’s 55 counties, he said, it ranks 10th for academic achievement.

Burch said that Ohio County, Brooke County, Hancock County, Monongalia County and Clay County had their applications for flexibility on the calendar approved earlier this year, and applications for Fayette, Raleigh, Nicholas and Wyoming counties went before the state school board this month. All those applications are similar, although some rely on technology more than others, he said.

In response to legislators’ questions, Tanner said the application for permission to do the program was not hard. He called it common sense and reasonable. But he said that producing hard copies for the snow packets requires a lot of paperwork, so districts doing that must work ahead.

Burch said the process to get waivers to handle inclement weather could be streamlined, and the Education Department is working on that.

In regard to what St. Albans High School is doing, Jeff Kelly, the school’s principal, explained how school officials approached the issue. He said students lost 17 days to the chemical leak in the water system and to snow in 2014. That was almost 10 percent of instructional days, he said, so he and his teachers discussed “digging into the standards and cutting out the fat.”

However, he noted, “Surprisingly enough in that year, we had our highest test scores ever.” Until then, he said, he had prioritized maximizing instructional minutes, but after that, he concentrated more on elevating the quality of instruction based on educational standards.

“Ultimately, what we were able to do was to squeeze our instructional minutes during the day, so that I opened up time at the end of the day for my teachers to have a 30-minute collaboration period every day for the entire school year.” – Jeff Kelly

“Ultimately, what we were able to do was to squeeze our instructional minutes during the day, so that I opened up time at the end of the day for my teachers to have a 30-minute collaboration period every day for the entire school year,” Kelly said. That began this year under a three-year waiver with long-term goals, he said. The school has been breaking the standards down into their simplest form by department, he said. Long-term, he hopes to talk about expanding the school’s formative assessments and developing a project-based learning program.

 

By Jim Wallace

The School Building Authority has agreed to make changes in the way it tracks funding for school construction projects following a study of the agency by the Legislative Auditor’s Office.

Tara Lane, audit manager in the Post-Audit Division of the Legislative Auditor’s Office, told a combined meeting of the Joint Standing Committee on Government Organization, the Joint Committee on Government Operations and the Joint Standing Committee on Education, that her office looked at 125 school construction projects.

“We recommend creation of a single data source to detail project construction costs, including but not limited to total construction costs, total square footage, total student capacity and cost per square foot and per student,” she said. “We also recommend consideration of an annual report detailing funding for the year, schools currently under construction, scope of the project and expected completion date, and schools completed during the school year. For schools completed during the year, a more detailed analysis could be included detailing but not limited to the architect and contractor, total construction costs, material versus labor costs, number and amount of change orders, project start date, project completion date, and opening date of the facility. Additionally, we recommend all documentation of school construction costs be properly maintained by the county, including the change order documents and their essential in the construction process. The documentation should be maintained in a way to account for employee turnover.”

Further, Lane said, her office recommended consideration of a change order log with details of all change orders. The School Building Authority generally agreed to go along with what Lane suggested.

“We take some issue with some of the findings in the audit, but we feel it’s fair,” David Sneed, executive director of the School Building Authority, said. “I think the information cited is something that we, as an agency, should and do track. We have very detailed information on project costs by square foot, by division of work, by architect, by contractor, by region, by county. We’ve shared that with the auditing office.”

The SBA is charged with tracking state funding, Sneed said, but it treats all funding as if it were state funding.

 

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Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for the Charleston Daily Mail, former news director of West Virginia Public Radio and former news director of WWVA/WOVK radio in Wheeling. He now works for TSG Consulting, a public relations and governmental affairs company with offices in Charleston and Beckley. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. Wallace is the author of the 2012 book,A History of the West Virginia Capitol: The House of State.