News

November 2, 2012 - Volume 32 Issue 24

 

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.” – Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), British poet and cultural critic.

 


By Jim Wallace

Reactions to the efficiency audit conducted on West Virginia’s public education system vary widely. The people who spoke about the audit at the West Virginia School Board Association’s conference at Stonewall Jackson Resort on October 27 made that clear.

But among their diverse views, most of the speakers agreed on two points. One is that the audit offers a rare opportunity to make long-needed changes. The other is that one big target of change should be the Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESAs).

“Don’t take it all too literally, but use it as an opportunity for making change in
West Virginia.” – Howard O’Cull

A strong call for action on both points came from the WVSBA’s own executive director, Howard O’Cull, who recommended that every school board member and superintendent should read the audit. “Don’t take it all too literally, but use it as an opportunity for making change in West Virginia,” he said and added that the WVSBA can be part of that change.

Most change comes from external forces and rarely occurs internally, O’Cull said. Since he became the association’s executive director in 1985, he has seen three significant windows of opportunity for school board members to be involved in substantial changes, he said.

One of those windows followed the 1983 issuance of the Nation at Risk report, which spawned a series of reforms in public education to make southern states stronger economically. West Virginia was slow to make any effort toward reform, O’Cull said, but it did make changes in the School Aid Formula after many people realized school districts were identifying too many kids as special education students, because they got more funding for them. He said other changes that were spawned then included proposals for creation of the School Building Authority and the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. 

O’Cull said a second major reform effort came out of the 1990 teachers’ strike, which led to creation of Local School Improvement Councils, faculty senates and a three-year pay raise for teachers. Since then, he said, West Virginia has not had massive education reform, although there were some attempts, including then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s 2010 effort to get federal Race to the Top funds through “a hodge-podge” of legislative bills.

“This is a unique time that we could use the audit as a means to continue the conversation and to get across some points,” O’Cull said. “Your role as school board members is a very important role.”

Noting that some people, including state school board members, have talked about getting rid of county school boards and using money saved for pay raises, he said, that would not be a good way to go and it wouldn’t save much money.

“The point is the audit should not be taken literally for what it says so much as it is an opportunity that we have to make substantive changes in how education operates,” O’Cull said. “I think that is how we should proceed.”

 

School boards should be selective in their approach.

School boards should examine the audit and see what they can do themselves with its recommendations, he said.

“We don’t want to get ahead of the Legislature, because they are not at the same place we are. We’re having a conversation about the audit that began in February; they’re just beginning to have their conversations.”  – Howard O’Cull

But we don’t want to get ahead of the Legislature, because they are not at the same place we are,” O’Cull said. “We’re having a conversation about the audit that began in February; they’re just beginning to have their conversations.”

The WVSBA will have an opportunity in January to go before the interim legislative subcommittee studying the audit, he said, so the association should prepare to offer “narrow recommendations” to legislators.

“We can’t be all over the map, and we can’t be stupid,” O’Cull said. “We can’t be: Let’s do away with seniority. They (legislators) can’t do things like that. And no one in this room wants that. But they (legislators) can pull some things out of the audit that can be turned into very viable ways to make some change in West Virginia.”

Although school board members and others in public education might think they have heard such talk of change before, he said, that doesn’t mean they can’t make something good come out of the audit, even though many parts of it are flawed. “We need to fill in the areas that are blank, and I think we can do so effectively,” O’Cull said.

The Legislature is an “incremental body,” meaning that it makes changes slowly, he said, so the association must be prepared to educate legislators about things that can be done to advance the idea of community involvement in schools and better local governance.

O’Cull said people in education from other states are amazed at all the things in West Virginia’s code that their states don’t have in their laws. He explained that the reason for so many specifications in the law goes back to when West Virginia was still part of Virginia and there was a huge debate about education. Alexander Campbell, founder of Bethany College, thought the western part of the state was being ignored by the Piedmont area, he said.

“I think we have to realize that the isolation of this state caused centralization,” O’Cull said. The consolidation of 348 school districts in a 1932 constitutional amendment into 55 county districts led to further centralization, he said.

 

RESAs need to change.

The potential for change is great, O’Cull said, and one key target for change should be the RESAs. He said they could be beefed up to take a greater role in helping counties with central office operations, which could be timely as many central office workers in school systems around the state reach retirement age. He noted that Wood County’s superintendent and other central office workers retired at the same time a few years ago and suggested that could have been a golden opportunity to see whether services could have been shared among counties through the RESA.

“RESAs chase after grant dollars and things like that, and they don’t have core missions and functions that get them involved in directly working central office administrative services,” O’Cull said. “It’s pretty simple: If you get grant dollars, you’re going to be grant driven.”

State code sets out three primary responsibilities for RESAs: 1) to provide technical assistance to low-performing schools; 2) to provide staff development; and 3) to provide services. O’Cull suggested that the first step toward improvement should be to narrow the mission of RESAs so that the responsibility to provide services is more specific. That, he said, would assist the RESAs’ regional councils in holding the RESAs accountable. He said the duties of RESAs have been the subject of many conversations since they were created 40 years ago.

“We need to determine what the role of RESAs will be. Then we need to determine what kind of central office staffing we need.” – Howard O’Cull

“Conversations are nice, but they need to be settled,” O’Cull said. “We need to determine what the role of RESAs will be. Then we need to determine what kind of central office staffing we need.”

State code already allows county school systems to share central office services, but no districts have taken advantage of that provision yet, he said. “There is so much in the audit that we could take and we could have good conversation about and we could turn it into something that’s a very useful thing,” O’Cull said.

The conversation he would like members of the WVSBA to have should include discussion about what’s right and wrong in public schools, but it also should lead to serious recommendations for the Legislature. O’Cull said school boards are the largest employers in 46 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, but only eight counties are expected to have student population increases in the next 20 years, so the Legislature will have to decide whether to keep the number of administrators and assistants in school districts the same.

O’Cull concluded with a message that change is coming. “We have a good opportunity, and I don’t think we ought to lose it,” he said.

 

Outside auditor sees much room for change.

That message was similar to the way Susan Zoller, senior consultant for MGT of America, began the day’s discussion about the issues addressed in the audit. “The solutions for this problem are sitting right in this room,” she said.

Zoller and her company were involved in the part of the audit that examined local school districts, while Public Works, LLC, conducted the audit of the state Department of Education and other state agencies. She said they came in with “outside eyes” to look at West Virginia’s public education system and came up with recommendations worth exploring. The audit includes more commendations than recommendations for changes, she said, but it “found some opportunities for major savings,” including a projected $70 million from proposed changes among local districts and RESA and another $20 million from changes at the state Education Department.

“Our challenge was not to suggest you don’t need the money you have,” Zoller said, but considering that West Virginia is eighth in the nation in spending on education yet near the bottom in student performance, there should be many opportunities to spend money differently. “Your state department of education is one of the largest in the country,” she said, adding that its size seems out of balance.

Some of the audit recommendations are “little bitty things,” but Zoller told school board members not to ignore big ones, such as how the RESAs react with the county school systems. She also encouraged everyone not to dwell on how the problems were created.  

“We don’t want to know who’s guilty. We don’t want to know who did it. It’s time to take steps to fix it.” – Susan Zoller

“We don’t want to know who’s guilty,” Zoller said. “We don’t want to know who did it. It’s time to take steps to fix it.”

Again mentioning West Virginia’s low ranking in student achievement, she said it’s obvious something isn’t working. Zoller said the choice for policymakers is whether to continue experiencing chronic pain or to make big changes that could cause acute pain in the short term while improving the system for the long term.

 

Auditor also calls for changes with RESAs.

When asked to offer a model for change, Zoller suggested one of the most important decisions is to figure out what to do with the RESAs.

“RESAs were intended to support the work of the school districts,” she said. “My understanding is that the administration and oversight of the RESAs, as they exist right now, has changed over time.”  

Zoller noted that the staffs at the RESAs range from 17 people to more than 300. “So if the RESAs are supposed to support school districts, wouldn’t it make sense that the staffing at the RESAs matches the size and complexity of the school districts that they serve?” she asked. But Zoller said it would be wrong to assume the RESA with a staff of more than 300 supports the largest group of counties.

“Either you have RESAs that are helpful, useful…or maybe you don’t need RESAs.” – Susan Zoller

Another problem Zoller mentioned is that members of some of the regional councils that oversee the RESAs feel as though they are just rubber stamps. “They feel as though they’ve been cut out of the mix,” she said. “Either you have RESAs that are helpful, useful…or maybe you don’t need RESAs.”

The state of Washington’s Educational Service Districts offer a good model for how West Virginia’s RESAs could be structured, Zoller said. Washington officials have identified a core set of services for all of them to have, and the Educational Service Districts also have done some specialization. For example, she said, one has developed expertise in school construction so that any school system in the state that needs help with construction issues can turn to that Educational Service District.

Zoller added that West Virginia legislators need to trust educators and empower them, because local school officials don’t feel empowered and held accountable. “I hear people asking to be allowed to make more flexible decisions at the local level but being held accountable,” she said. She also said that if anyone in the Legislature suggests cutting school budgets or adding more laws, the response should be to line up 13 kids, one from each grade, and ask legislators which one they want to let fail.

When asked for recommendations on improving academics, Zoller said school boards should commit to hitting certain targets. She said boards must determine whether children are achieving basic skills and high-technology skills, and they must have conversations with parents, whose help is needed getting kids to school, engaged in learning and understanding that education is important. Teachers must feel the same way, she said, so attitude changes are needed not just for parents and kids but also for teachers and principals.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency,” Zoller said. The only way to get young people to stay in West Virginia is by providing great education that will lead to great jobs coming back to the state, she said, because no company would be interested in moving to a place that lacks interest in creating high-skilled people.

“The best way to increase the number of people here who are in that child-bearing age, I think, is to create some great jobs here,” she said. “The way we create great jobs here is to have great kids coming through the system.”

Melissa Knotts, a member of the Taylor County school board, said her school system has had a collaborative effort with the judicial system and others over the last few years to cut down on truancy and push a sense of urgency about having kids in school. She said that effort has improved students’ attendance and achievement.

Zoller said that is the type of collaboration that is needed. “What I don’t want to see is blaming and finger-pointing again,” she said. “I see it all across the country.”

 

Speakers question auditors’ findings.

Although Zoller had to leave to catch a flight home before others, including O’Cull, offered their opinions, some of their comments directly refuted some of the points she made and the findings of the audit. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, called it “cruel” to have had to listen to accusations without the opportunity to respond to Zoller. He said a large part of West Virginia’s education budget goes into the Teachers Retirement System to “pay for the sins of the past,” when state officials underfunded pensions, and for health insurance. Only about 28 percent of the education budget goes into the classroom, Lee said, so when that is considered, West Virginia is nowhere near eighth in the nation or even near the middle of the states in spending on education.

Although West Virginia might be near the bottom in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state is second in the nation for the increase in the number of students who take and pass advanced placement exams, he said, so some good things are happening in West Virginia. Lee also noted that he visited West Side High School in Wyoming County in May. He said that, when he graduated from high school in Wyoming County, he was among only four out of 85 people in his class who already had college credit.  But the most recent graduating class at West Side had more than 90 students who had earned college credit.

“It tells me that some great things are happening in education in West Virginia,” he said. “The problem is that we’ve bought into the media hype that we’re terrible.”

Teachers tend to get blamed for problems in the education system, Lee said, but that is unfair.

“What will work is collaboration time. What will work is giving the teachers the technology and training and the opportunities to teach and then having some accountability not only for teachers but for students and parents and elected officials and everyone else.” – Dale Lee

“The problem is, in my opinion, that we don’t listen to the teachers and sit down and have a discussion on what needs to change in education in West Virginia,” he said. “If we don’t listen to the people who deal with it each and every day instead of outside people coming in and legislators making decision when they haven’t been in the classroom since they were in school, then we are fooling ourselves.”

Lee called for uniting as “an education family.” Some changes need to be made, he said, but the system is not as bad as some people claim. He called for giving teachers time to teach, instead of piling on more requirements, and giving schools the funding they need. Lee decried some school boards’ attempts to cut expenses by dropping electives in secondary schools.

Further, he criticized the audit for coming up with about half of its projected $90 million savings through cutbacks in child nutrition, along with proposing increases in meal prices and reducing employment for school cooks to just 180 days. Lee suggested that the next proposal likely would be to cut teachers back to just 180 days of work.

“The problem is, in my opinion, that we don’t listen to the teachers and sit down and have a discussion on what needs to change in education in West Virginia. If we don’t listen to the people who deal with it each and every day instead of outside people coming in and legislators making decision when they haven’t been in the classroom since they were in school, then we are fooling ourselves.” – Dale Lee

“We’ll stand in the way of that, because we know it won’t work,” he said. “What will work is collaboration time. What will work is giving the teachers the technology and training and the opportunities to teach and then having some accountability not only for teachers but for students and parents and elected officials and everyone else.”

Lee said West Virginia schools are making some progress against truancy, but there are still kindergarten kids who miss more than 60 days. “How are you going to get that kid up to reading level in third grade when they’ve missed 60 [days] in kindergarten, 60 as a first-grader, 60 as a second-grader?” he asked. Teachers shouldn’t be blamed when students have academic trouble after missing so much time in school, Lee said.

“We have problems in West Virginia,” he said. “Part of it is that education is not valued in many parts of our state, because there’s no jobs and education has not helped people [get jobs].”

Lee said he agreed with some of the audit’s findings, such as leaving more decisions on staff development to local officials. But he said other proposals, such as letting principals set calendars and school days wouldn’t work, because that would put schools in the same county on different bus schedules.

Although West Virginia very well might have one of the most regulated education systems, which results in a high staffing level at the state Education Department, Lee said, other states have more people employed in each of their schools districts.

“I think that we can improve,” he said, but state and federal government shouldn’t dictate how education should go.

Lee expressed disappointment that teachers and school boards were not invited to participate in the town meetings that Vision Shared held around the state to discuss the audit. So he said the WVEA would hold its own meetings at several locations around West Virginia during November. (For more on that, see Lee’s commentary in the Commentary section of this issue.)

 

WVSBA president is wary of some proposed changes.

Similar to Lee, Jimmy Wyatt, WVSBA president, said he didn’t think West Virginia’s education system is as bad off as some people make it out to be. He said there are good things in the audit, but they are aimed more at the state Education Department than local districts.

Wyatt said the central office in his system, the Tyler County schools, costs just 3 percent of the system’s budget, so not much could be saved there. He said combining the central office functions of the school systems in Tyler, Pleasants and Wirt counties has been suggested. But he said, “I don’t want somebody from Pleasants County or Wirt County deciding what we’re going to be doing in Tyler County.”

It seems clear that “we are top heavy,” Wyatt said, and it irritates him as a school board member when the state Education Department tells his board that it must approve some policy. He also complained that the state department oversees many functions that wouldn’t be found in other state departments and often does it inconsistently. “At times, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing in Charleston,” he said.

“I think there is a real lack of trust between the state department and the RESAs now.” – Jimmy Wyatt

If RESAs are to be retained, Wyatt said, staff development should be turned over to them. However, he added, “I think there is a real lack of trust between the state department and the RESAs now.”

Wyatt supported a recommendation that many school systems could save money on energy costs. He said an energy efficiency audit found the Tyler County schools could save $2 million by replacing lights and putting timers on certain machines so they don’t run all the time.

“We need to open our eyes and we need to digest this, take a look at what’s good in there, what’s not good,” Wyatt said of the audit. “What is good, we keep it.”

Someone tries to reinvent education every four years, he said. “We are doing a lot of good things in West Virginia, and we are doing a lot of things we need to improve on, and I think we need to start with the state department,” Wyatt said.

 

Official wants a devolution of power.

Rick Hicks, executive director of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, said it’s important to read and understand the audit findings. “The further you are away from the child sitting in the classroom when you’re making decisions, the least effective you are in affecting student achievement,” he said and called the audit a conversation starter.

“One of the problems we have in West Virginia is that we are a top-down system,” Hicks said. The state Constitution separates the state board from the Legislature and the governor’s office, he said, so when the Legislature and governor want the state department to do something, they put it into code. He would prefer a system in which fewer education mandates are put into law.

Like Lee, Hicks suggested the best way to improve the education system would be to listen to the people in the classrooms, the teachers. “They know better about their own classrooms and their own communities than anyone in Charleston,” he said. The state department and state board should set broad goals and specific targets for the districts and then give the resources to the districts to find ways to meet the targets, he said.

As others did, Hicks saw a need to make changes in the RESAs. He described them as being “all over the place.” He wants them to provide professional development. He also wants to give the regional councils authority to determine the direction of the professional development the RESAs would offer.

“One size does not fit all. Let the local folks decide their needs, and let the RESAs decide how to provide for those needs.” – Rick Hicks

“One size does not fit all,” Hicks said. “Let the local folks decide their needs, and let the RESAs decide how to provide for those needs.”

His hope is that the WVSBA and others will have a good discussion of the audit findings before the Legislature’s regular session begins in February.

“This is an opportunity that we shouldn’t miss in the state of West Virginia,” Hicks said. “This is an opportunity to have the conversation and discussion and decision-making to move us forward as a state in the educational realm.”

 

Earlier conference provided background information.

The October 27 meeting occurred one day after a joint conference by the WVSBA and the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, also at Stonewall Jackson Resort. During that conference, attendees received presentations on state’s economic and fiscal outlook, patterns and trends in the school-age population, and the education audit and then held small-group discussions on how to respond to the audit. Those sessions provided much background information for many of the attendees at the next day’s conference.

A total of 116 people attended the first day’s conference. They included: state school board President Wade Linger; state board member William White; Donna Peduto, liaison to the state board; Chuck Heinlein, a deputy state superintendent; Joe Panetta, an assistant state superintendent; Jane Lynch of RESA 8, representing the eight RESA executive directors; and many county school board members and superintendents. All but Berkeley, Putnam and Wetzel counties had at least one school board member in attendance. The total attendance included 57 county board members, 42 county superintendents and nine central office administrators.  

These are the links to Power Point slides provided at that meeting: 

 

 

By Jim Wallace

The School Building Authority is trying to be more creative in helping school boards get the most out of school construction funds. One way the authority wants to do that is through the use of energy saving contracts.

Mark Manchin, executive director of the authority, and a member of his staff explained their plans at the West Virginia School Board Association’s conference at Stonewall Jackson Resort on October 27.

About $770 million in school construction is under way or being planned, Manchin said, but he expects only another $700 million to $800 million in authority funds to be available to school districts over the next decade. That is only about one third of the $2.454 billion of projects school boards have listed in their comprehensive education facilities plans, he said. The authority’s intention is to at least fund each county’s top priority, he said.

“It’s more than bricks and mortar; it’s the hopes and dreams and future of children,” Manchin said.

In the year ahead, he expects to have $45 million to $50 million in authority funds to distribute to school districts. In 2014, Manchin expects to have $13 million to $14 million available for debt service, which should generate more funds for construction. With so much need compared to funding available, he is encouraging school districts to get creative in financing.

“The days of 100 percent funding on projects are just gone. We’re looking at more and more and better ways to generate funds on the local level.” – Mark Manchin

“The days of 100 percent funding on projects are just gone,” Manchin said. “We’re looking at more and more and better ways to generate funds on the local level.”

 

Energy-saving contracts are tricky.

One way to do that is through the use of energy-saving contracts. Scott Raines, the authority’s director of architectural services, said studies from across the country have shown that such contracts provide 20 percent to 30 percent savings on energy costs. But he said there have been problems with them in West Virginia, because energy service companies (ESCos) have approached school boards seeking to be hired on their qualifications rather than how much money they can save the boards on energy costs.

Raines said the School Building Authority has heard “horror stories” from across the state:

  • In some cases, rebates from power companies have gone to the ESCos instead of school boards.
  • In other cases, the amount of projected energy savings over 15 years won’t cover the costs of the work.
  • In one county, the work was to cost $400,000 but the projected savings were only $200,000.

Consequently, he said, the authority plans to work with the Office of School Facilities to avoid such problems. They intend to define a process for school boards to enter into energy-saving contracts, because such a process is not defined in state code, Raines said.

“The benefits of these things are you guys are going to get your equipment and your schools updated sooner,” he said. “[The ESCos are] going to be responsible for maintaining this equipment and keeping it up over a certain period of time.”

Another advantage of energy saving contracts is that school boards can pay for the work over time, Raines said. “That’s another way for us to make our dollar go further,” he said.

The way ESCos work, Raines said is that each goes out and negotiates with three or four contractors to do the work, but the ESCos keep 30 percent to 40 percent of the profit.

“If you’ve got a million-dollar project, right off the bat, they’re taking $300,000 and they’ve got $700,000 to work with,” he said. “So they’re going out and negotiating the cost to do this work. If they negotiate that cost at $500,000, they can just pocket another $200,000.”

“Somehow you have got to determine the happy medium between qualifications and cost.” – Scott Raines

But while the ESCos might negotiate good deals for themselves, school systems are not guaranteed the lowest costs for the work, only that those doing the work are qualified, Raines said. “Somehow you have got to determine the happy medium between qualifications and cost,” he said.

With that in mind, the School Building Authority has been working with energy coalition people to develop a process for school boards to follow when entering into energy-saving contracts. Raines said one way that might work would be to have a school board get qualifications and cost estimates from a few different ESCos before entering into a contract. “It would give you the ability to look over two or three different prices,” he said.

Another problem the authority wants to address is financing terms. Raines said some ESCos have been bringing terms to school boards that might or might not meet state code requirements. The authority has developed a set of terms that meet all the requirements of state code, he said, “so that if you all go after an ESCo contract, you can hand those terms over and say, ‘OK, we don’t care what you have to offer. This is what we got to have, and this is what we want.’”

Funding from the School Building Authority could help school boards pay down the costs of energy saving contracts, Raines said, but the standardized process the authority is establishing could help boards no matter what sources of funding they use. “We want to create a process that is going to be standard for us that if any of the boards don’t want to come to us for money, it’ll also be a guideline for you guys to use on your own,” he said. In developing the process, he said, he has spoken with the state Purchasing Division and the attorney general’s office and confirmed that school boards cannot go into contracts that will cost them more than they save. Raines said he also has looked at the processes other states use, and they are similar to what the authority is developing, so the ESCos would not be asked to do anything they are not already doing elsewhere.

“The way you’re going into these things now is you’re going into them blind,” he said.

“We’re laying the groundwork for your knowledge.” – Mark Manchin

Manchin said the authority wants companies to have to show all the numbers before a contract is signed. He said boards should never make decisions when they don’t have all the facts. “We’re laying the groundwork for your knowledge,” he said.

In addition, Manchin said, the authority is exploring the possibility of working with counties to leverage excess levies to generate local funds. He said his agency has found that school districts have more success with levies than with bond issues.

 

 

By Jim Wallace

The West Virginia Department of Education is loosening some of the reins it holds on technology spending by county school districts, but at least one county superintendent wants the department to go much further.

Randolph County Supt. Jim Phares told members of Education Subcommittee B during their October meeting that West Virginia should consider big changes in education funding as the Legislature and others analyze the recommendations of the education efficiency audit that was completed several months ago.

“With the audit, we have a golden opportunity to make a stand as to what do we want to do in West Virginia. Do we want to have a centralized, controlled state system or do we want to return some decision-making to the localities? Some say I’m overconfident and some say that I’m even arrogant, but I want to tell you when localities have the ability to make choices on their own…they’ll make some really good decisions.” – Randolph County Supt. Jim Phares

“With the audit, we have a golden opportunity to make a stand as to what do we want to do in West Virginia,” he said. “Do we want to have a centralized, controlled state system or do we want to return some decision-making to the localities? Some say I’m overconfident and some say that I’m even arrogant, but I want to tell you when localities have the ability to make choices on their own…they’ll make some really good decisions.”

While Phares testified to the subcommittee, he was made aware that the Education Department had just made some changes in how Step VII money in the School Aid Formula would be allocated to school districts. Joe Panetta, an assistant state superintendent in the Division of Student Support Services, said state Supt. Jorea Marple had decided after meeting with a superintendents’ advisory committee to let Step VII money go directly to county school boards.

“They can spend that money for technology under local purchasing guidelines,” Panetta said.

Also at the subcommittee’s meeting, legislative attorney Dave Mohr announced that WVNET had signed an agreement that will allow school systems to piggyback on WVNET’s contract for technology purchases so they could get products beyond what they have been able to get through Pomeroy, a company the Education Department has contracted with for many years.

Phares seemed unaware of those developments when he began his testimony by saying, 
“The only flexibility that most counties have is with local dollars, including levy funds or some local shares or some other local dollars that counties have available and also grants and matching funds. Without levy funding, we would have relatively no flexibility.”

Like the people who conducted the education efficiency audit, Phares criticized West Virginia’s top-down delivery model. “Each year, counties go through a planning process in which a representative from the state department technology department, as well as a vendor, comes and sits down with the technology person in your county and then goes over what you can spend your money on,” he said. “State contracts like to lock in prices that do not necessarily reflect current market value of products.”

 

WVEIS is criticized.

The development announced by Panetta might change that, but Phares indicated that education technology problems go further. He said the most outstanding issue is the Education Department’s continued use of the West Virginia Education Information System (WVEIS).

“This is kind of something that goes under the radar and nobody ever really talks about, but the operational platform of WVEIS limits localities’ choices in software platform programs that integrate student data. Software providers have had great success in other states in integrating student data management systems. However, integration in West Virginia limits companies’ willingness to do business with our current student data management system.” – Jim Phares

“This is kind of something that goes under the radar and nobody ever really talks about, but the operational platform of WVEIS limits localities’ choices in software platform programs that integrate student data,” Phares said. “Software providers have had great success in other states in integrating student data management systems. However, integration in West Virginia limits companies’ willingness to do business with our current student data management system.”

Another problem he cited is the inability of the schools’ technology centers to talk to each other. “That means that if you’re in a technology center, you got to enter data twice, and in this day and age, that’s almost unheard of,” Phares said, adding that being restricted to dealing with one vendor is not “the smart way to do it.”

As if Phares had not already been clear, Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, asked him his opinion of WVEIS.

“It’s a last-generation platform,” Phares said. “It needs to be gone.”

“Amen,” Paxton added.

Explaining further, Phares said his schools have had trouble integrating support for personalized student learning into WVEIS. Specifically, he wanted to use software from a company called Engrade that would provide a platform that principals and superintendents could use to see if students missed attendance and assignments. The process of making Engrade work with WVEIS started last February, he said.

“I’d like to say we all held hands and sang ‘Kumbaya’ through that process,” Phares said. “It didn’t go that way. We have it fully implemented now with the exception of discipline.”

But he said the chief executive officer of Engrade said the company would give free services to West Virginia but if state procurement laws didn’t prevent it.

Phares said the education audit found there could be many potential cost savings by having one state delivery system for virtual schools, professional development and student assessment, but the audit missed how much expense could be avoided in the amount of time that teachers, principals and central office staff spend on counting and verifying test booklets, as well as training to do that.

“It’s ungodly the expense we have. It becomes a hodge-podge, particularly if you have a teacher who innocently miscounts a book or something like that, and then there’s a great investigation as to what they have done. If you go to true online assessments, you don’t have those security issues anymore, and you don’t have all that paperwork.” – Jim Phares

“It’s ungodly the expense we have,” he said. “It becomes a hodge-podge, particularly if you have a teacher who innocently miscounts a book or something like that, and then there’s a great investigation as to what they have done. If you go to true online assessments, you don’t have those security issues anymore, and you don’t have all that paperwork.”

Phares provided legislators with a color-coded handout showing in red what technology funds the Randolph County schools received last year with no discretion over how they should be spent and in green what funds the system could spend without state restrictions. Among those listed as non-discretionary were $263,315.41 in Tools for Schools funds and $166,609.25 in Step VII money. The graph also included $51,970.87 of local share money in the red zone with a note that it was discretionary as long as it was used through the state contract. In the green zone was about $800,000 in funds from a local levy.

The Randolph County schools received more than $17,000 for the Books on the Bus program, which allows students with long bus rides to listen to audio books during their commutes. But even though legislation for Books on the Bus was passed last year, but the school system is just now implementing it, he said.

“That’s because of what we had to go through in order to get iPods that kids could listen to,” Phares said. “If they had given us the money, we’d have had that program now for two years.”

Further, he said, the school system must remain “tremendously conscious” of not supplanting technology funding from the state by supplementing it. “One of the things that we use that has really helped our primary grade teachers is the iPad, because DIBELS, which is a one-on-one reading assessment – teachers can do that,” Phares said. “They don’t have to go by paper and then put it into an electronic format. It’s right there.”

 

Audit shows systemic problems.

When asked what findings from the education audit would make his job easier, Phares said he views the audit as a roadmap that reveals a “systemic flaw.” He noted that when he came to West Virginia in 1998, two county school districts were under state control, but several more have come under state control since then.

“What I think the systemic flaw is: We have school systems that are being taken over because of certain systemic flaws,” Phares said. “Number one is: If you have the same organization that’s determining the outcome and then determining the processes, well, you can see how that cycles back to itself. So at some point in time, all 55 counties may end up, if you go another 15 years, under state control. Well, who then takes over the state department? So that’s a systemic flaw as I see it.”

Phares also supported considering seniority – or experience, as he put it – in personnel decisions. “We see that as an attribute, not as a deficiency,” he said. “So I’m not going to be one who is going to stand here and say we need to change all personnel, particularly with the hiring of professionals.”

The audit should be the starting point for dialogue, he said.

“It is a unique time in West Virginia education, I believe, to go one of two ways, and that is how to make a decision of how we’re going to do what we’re going to do.” – Jim Phares

“If we begin to engage in dialogue rather than discussion – and there is a distinct difference between the two – and raise everybody’s awareness, I think there will be less finger-pointing and we can move forward,” Phares said. “It is a unique time in West Virginia education, I believe, to go one of two ways, and that is how to make a decision of how we’re going to do what we’re going to do.”

In answer to a question about what county school districts would do if they had more flexibility in spending funds for technology, Phares said that if teachers are expected to use digital textbooks, each one should have a laptop computer, and then every student should get a laptop.

“When counties get to make a decision about what they do with the money, it invests them in the process,” he said. “It makes them feel better about themselves.”

Phares also noted that the audit commended Randolph County for using a transponder system to route buses. “Well, we do have a transponder system, but we’re tremendously limited in our use on that, because right after we got it, the 911 addressing system – they hit the brakes in Randolph County,” he said. “I’m not sure why. I think it’s because businesses became reluctant to change addresses.”

But Phares said the system should save money after it is implemented fully.

One of the subcommittee’s co-chairmen, Sen. Greg Tucker, D-Nicholas, said the subcommittee wants the Education Department to present its response to the audit at the subcommittee’s November meeting. He said two hours will be set aside for that instead of the one hour the subcommittee normally has. At the December meeting, other stakeholders, including the American Federation of Teachers, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, will have a chance to respond, he said.

 

Education Department reduces personnel.

In other business, Deputy Supt. Chuck Heinlein told the committee that the Education Department has 34 unfilled positions, although a later count of a handout he provided seemed to reveal only 33 unfilled positions. He said 12 of those positions have been consolidated and won’t be filled.

Panetta said funding for those positions will expire at the end of the fiscal year and is not included in the department’s budget request for fiscal year 2014. He said the savings is about $1.2 million.

Bob Brown, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, reported to the subcommittee about the Reconnecting McDowell project. He said about 150 people attended last month’s partners’ meeting at the armory in McDowell County, which included a working session and then tours of schools in the county. In conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education, the organization held several roundtable discussions with students and teachers and then a town hall meeting led by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Brown said more than 250 people participated in the town hall meeting.

The organization is in the process of developing a comprehensive plan for McDowell County with subcommittees on health, education, college and career readiness, technology, housing, transportation and jobs, Brown said. Reconnecting McDowell also is working with the county superintendent on plans for a countywide Innovation Zone, he said.

Brown said the intent of the project is to create a model that could be used elsewhere in the nation. He said it has 107 partners now, and many of them are national organizations and Fortune 500 companies.

 

 

By Jim Wallace
 
The West Virginia Department of Education is working on initiatives to get more students enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs, offer more electronic and virtual education, and reduce the number of students who drop out of school.

State Supt. Marple discussed those and other efforts with members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability during their October meeting.

West Virginia’s universal early childhood education program makes pre-K programs available to all four-year-olds. Marple said it impressed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he visited the state in September, but she wants more children to take advantage of the program.

“At present about 67 percent of our students are enrolled in pre-K programs, and our goal is we want to get closer to 90 percent. We’re working on some initiatives that can communicate to parents the quality and the outcomes of pre-K programs.” – Supt. Jorea Marple

“At present about 67 percent of our students are enrolled in pre-K programs, and our goal is we want to get closer to 90 percent,” she said.  “We’re working on some initiatives that can communicate to parents the quality and the outcomes of pre-K programs.”

Clayton Burch, executive director of the Office of Early Learning, said West Virginia has worked hard to meet 10 benchmarks for preschools. He said the only one that is lacking is the assistant teacher qualification. Head Start has changed qualifications for assistant teachers beginning in 2013, he said, and most of West Virginia’s preschool classrooms collaborate with Head Start. The state must address that, Burch said, but it cannot have higher qualifications for pre-K teachers than for kindergarten teachers.

The department is looking more at outcomes for those teachers and considering them more and more as co-teachers, he said. It is offering e-learning courses for $13 a year, Burch said, and he added that half the people in the pre-K workforce already have one of the credentials or are working toward them.

 

More digital textbooks are coming.

For older students, Marple said, the department is working on building electronic education resources to move away from the traditional system in which students are expected to spend required amounts of classroom time to a system using evidence-based learning.

“We’re actually working with Utah on a concept called ‘e-Textbooks for Mathematics,’” she said, adding that the hope is to adopt electronic textbooks for math by 2016. “We're working with teachers all around the state on the development of electronic resources in the area of social studies.”

Marple noted that the department already offers many resources for student at its online Learn21 site, as well as such resources as lesson plans and instructional guides at the Teach21 site. She said those resources are being realigned to match the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

A meeting she had with Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, and Vice-chairman Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, to look at career-technical education options led to the discovery that the department already has six concentrations in career-technical education that can be delivered virtually, Marple said, and 10 more are in the works. She said that will give students more options for completing work in those subjects.

Making sure students have plenty of vocational education options available to them is seen as one way to prevent some students from dropping out of school. Education Department leaders and legislators have given that much discussion in recent months. Marple said the department also is taking other steps to reduce the number of dropouts.

“We have released an early warning system that begins in sixth grade, being able to look at students’ likeliness of dropping out of school to make sure that our teachers and our principals are able to target these students and provide them with additional support.” – Supt. Jorea Marple

“We have released an early warning system that begins in sixth grade, being able to look at students’ likeliness of dropping out of school to make sure that our teachers and our principals are able to target these students and provide them with additional support,” she said.

Marple said one electronic resource being used is called On Target, which has been very successful. She said it accepts what students know and starts dealing with their skill deficiencies. “We're seeing a large number of students being able to recover those credits and stay in school,” she said.

Another of Marple’s activities recently has been visiting schools that receive additional federal dollars because of low student performance. She said those schools are showing progress and cited Doddridge Elementary School is a good example. She said teachers get a time and place to grow professionally, support from staff, rich electronic resources, engagement of the community, and timely analysis of assessments. But Marple said the greatest concern is that the additional funding will run out at the end of the year.

However, she said, West Virginia has received another federal grant for the Farm-to-School Initiative, which has allowed her department to employ someone as a coordinator. “We’re encouraging districts to work with their local farmers to be able to put those products in our schools,” Marple said. “We’re distributing grants to local districts to encourage them.”

Also as part of that initiative, the department is using a software program designed for restaurants to coordinate when farmers have fruits and vegetables available, she said. In addition, Marple said, the department is encouraging schools to offer second helpings when students are hungry.

On the issue of getting students immunized, she said, the public schools have made progress. She said 99.85 percent of students were in compliance with immunization requirements.

 

 

By Jim Wallace

County-level education officials want the Legislature to make changes in the way some students are placed in out-of-state facilities, because current policies have become very costly to some school districts.

“Out-of-state placement of students in West Virginia…has been an issue that’s been around for a long time,” Donald Bucher, assistant superintendent of Pendleton County schools, told members of Education Subcommittee C at their October meeting. He said West Virginia has not had the residential treatment facilities that other states have had, so students often have been shipped out of the state mainly through court orders but also occasionally as a result of decisions by individual education plan committees.

The out-of-state placements had little effect on local school districts for many years, because the Department of Education took care of the educational costs and the county school systems knew little of the transactions, Bucher said. But beginning in 2009-1010, he said, the costs were sent down through the counties, although federal stimulus funds were used to pay for them. Since the stimulus funds ran out, however, the costs of out-of-state placements have been a hardship on the local districts, he said, because the department subtracts those costs from state aid for special education.

“That money for special ed. directors is very important money,” Bucher said. “It’s the money we use to buy supplies, to purchase technology, to buy professional development for our staff, to travel – just a whole array of things.”

If Pendleton County had several students in out-of-state placement, the district potentially could lose most of its special education money, he said. “It could be devastating,” Bucher said. “Some of the smaller counties are in that situation.”

The Education Department has made available some grants to restore some of the money, he said, so about 50 percent to 60 percent of the money does flow back to the counties, but they must apply for it. “That still leaves almost $800,000 this year, which is taken from local county funds to do this,” Bucher said.

The county districts are not asking the Legislature to give them additional money, he said, but they want legislators to know that special education money has remained flat for 30 years while students’ needs have increased and technology can do wonderful things for them is expensive. Bucher said school officials also are concerned that the decisions about placements vary widely from county to county because of decisions by judges and probation officers. They would like to have a more comprehensive approach for making such decisions.

“I think there are many more students going out of state than there need to be.” – Donald Bucher

“I think there are many more students going out of state than there need to be,” Bucher said.

Health and Human Resources have an agreement, dating back at least to 1993, that results in different treatment for regular education students than for special education students. He said DHHR funds the out-of-state placement costs for regular education students, while the Education Department funds those costs for special education students. Better coordination could result in “wiser decisions” and lower costs for out-of-state placement, Fisher said.

Documents presented by Fisher and Bucher show that county school officials have been seeking changes in policy for a few years. For example, in a letter to legislators in February 2011, Fisher asked for legislation to remove the expenses of out-of-state placements from the school districts.

“Because county school systems do not make these placements, our courts do, we have no control of, or input into, these very expensive decisions,” he wrote. “Furthermore, I believe the current system is unfair because it assigns, in certain instances, this expense to counties in which these students have only resided a very brief period of time. For example, Harrison County is home to two Genesis Youth Crisis Center facilities. Frequently these facilities serve as short term placements, days or weeks, for students awaiting court disposition and an out-of-state placement. Because Harrison County is then considered the last county of residence prior to the out-of-state placement, the cost for the out-of-state educational services is being assigned to Harrison County Schools.”

 

Legislators offer suggestions for changes.

Delegate Margaret Smith, D-Lewis, suggested that the Legislature might want to require schools to be involved in hearings that could lead to out-of-state placements. Fisher said most of the placements are made for non-educational reasons, but the schools should have someone at the table.

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, asked if something could be done to minimize the need to send kids out of state. Bucher said there have been many discussions about that, but to keep the kids in West Virginia, someone would have to develop a for-profit treatment facility in West Virginia. Fisher added that construction of such a facility is unlikely, because the state’s certificate of need process is too cumbersome and too political. Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, said, “In the long run, we lose money by not creating our own facility.”

Bucher challenged legislators to study the situation carefully.

“It is something that is costing us a lot of money,” he said. “Right now, we’re taking money away from other special ed. students in our school systems because of our need to pay for this cost. Money seems to be drying up everywhere – Medicaid, no increase in state aid money for special ed. and the idea of sequestration – it’s a frustrating time we live in to provide special ed. services to students.”

“Perhaps we need some legislation that makes it a little more uniform so all the 55 counties can implement the same standards.” – Sen. Truman Chafin

Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said that if judicial decisions are not uniform, guidelines should be established to lessen the differences from judge to judge. “Perhaps we need some legislation that makes it a little more uniform so all the 55 counties can implement the same standards,” he said. Chafin also suggested having a mechanism to appeal to the chief justice of the Supreme Court when there are disagreements and making sure that judges receive fiscal notes, so they know the costs of out-of-state placement.

 

 

 

By Jim Wallace

A legislative panel looking for ways to reduce West Virginia’s high rate of pregnancy among teenagers has learned that school-based health clinics and health education classes are not doing as much as they could to help with the problem.

Kelli Caseman, executive director of the West Virginia School-Based Health Assembly, which is funded by the Sisters of St. Joseph Health and Wellness Foundation, said West Virginia was among the first states to establish school-based clinics about 20 years ago. She said there are now 70 centers in 84 schools in 28 counties, including 36 in high schools, 24 in middle schools and 24 in elementary schools. Of those, 35 also provide mental health services, and 27 also provide oral health services, Caseman said. Another 15 to 20 school-based clinics are expected to be established by the end of the school year, she said.

But Caseman said very few of those school-based health centers dispense birth-control or condoms, and the services provided differ from high school to high school. Most of the people who run those clinics are hesitant to discuss the reproductive services they provide due to the fear of the misunderstanding about the nature of the services and potential repercussions, she said. 

“Frequently, new centers voluntarily choose not to provide reproductive health services to avoid the controversy.” – Kelli Caseman

“Frequently, new centers voluntarily choose not to provide reproductive health services to avoid the controversy,” she said. “When it comes to reproductive health services, school-based health centers provide service in varying degrees, and these decisions are made on the local level. Since centers have boards of directors that govern them and school systems have boards of education that govern them, these decisions to provide these services is a collaborative one, and it’s made on the community level.”

But West Virginia is not unusual in shying away from reproductive health services at school-based clinics. Caseman said 60 percent of school-based health centers nationally are barred from dispensing birth-control medicine or condoms.

Some school-based clinics in West Virginia do annual assessments of services by sending questionnaires home to parents and guardians, she said, and the answers can influence what services are included in the memorandums of understanding that are negotiated between the schools and the health care providers. But when those agreements do not specify which services are provided, discretion is left to the clinicians, Caseman said.

“Although it is frequently an uncomfortable conversation to have, teen pregnancy is an important issue and needs to be addressed by all stakeholders on the community level…. We need a cultural change in the way our young people perceive parenthood in their futures, as well as change in the way we, as a community, are willing to treat this increasing epidemic in our state.” – Kelli Caseman

“Reproductive service, including a wide range of services that include abstinence counseling, risk assessment, gynecological examinations, pregnancy testing, testing and treatment of [sexually transmitted diseases] and HIV counseling, is much more comprehensive than just distributing birth control,” she said. “Although it is frequently an uncomfortable conversation to have, teen pregnancy is an important issue and needs to be addressed by all stakeholders on the community level. We firmly believe that school-based health centers should and must have a seat at that table but cannot be the only source for that solution. We need a cultural change in the way our young people perceive parenthood in their futures, as well as change in the way we, as a community, are willing to treat this increasing epidemic in our state.”

 

Retired school nurse says schools do too little with sex education.

Pam Dice, a retired nurse who started working in Lincoln County schools in 1982, said she helped establish a sex education program in the schools in 1986, when Lincoln County had the highest teen pregnancy rate in West Virginia and West Virginia had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation. That effort met much resistance, she said, but when organizers let parents decide whether to let their children have sex education, 98 percent signed permission slips.

However, Dice said, when a school-based clinic was established in 1995 at Guyan Valley, officials decided against offering reproductive services out of fear that opposition could bring down the whole program. She also said that sex education in health classes tends to be inadequate despite guidelines for it from the state Education Department.

“But what happens is, they’re uncomfortable, they don’t want to do it, there’s not enough time, and it’s pushed off to the side,” Dice said, and content standards are not met. “The only thing they meet the content standard in is sixth grade and injury prevention.”

That might be about to change. Dice said she had received a memo saying the Education Department is trying to hire a project manager to coordinate efforts to implement West Virginia’s permissive sex health education policies in public schools.

“I think that’s very good,” she said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because we have a lot of projects and programs in place. We just need to strengthen what we have, and I think this is one way we can give the health teachers a little bit of help in trying to do that. Now, does knowledge alone stop teen pregnancy? No, it doesn’t, but it helps to know how you do get pregnant, so they can understand birth control.”

Dice said she wrote a paper about teen pregnancy 20 years ago that concluded that one thing that made a program a success was to give both boys and girls reasons to delay pregnancy and delay having sex. She said social programs are needed in schools to help students. Although the threat of controversy deters the provision of reproductive services in the schools, Dice said, there are 144 family planning clinics around the state where students could be referred.

“A lot of these kids live way up hollers,” she said. “They don’t want to tell their parents they want to go to the clinic. That makes the schools liable, because we can’t technically take them off school grounds to a clinic.”

So Dice suggested working something out for the schools to be better referral sources and make sure clinics are taught to be more teen-friendly. She said she and others in the Lincoln County schools used to take kids to the health department to get pregnancy tests in the late 1980s, even though they couldn’t get permission to do it.

“Somehow there needs to be a way that we can refer these kids that have poor transportation to a clinic if we’re not going to do it on the site,” Dice said.

Otherwise, she suggested strengthening the programs that already exist. Dice said poverty is an issue, because some girls in poor families don’t have goals beyond high school. She added that boys should be included in programs to curb teen pregnancy, because it also can affect them for the rest of their lives.

“We’re taking a lot away from our teenagers’ futures by not protecting their futures. – Delegate Meshea Poore

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, suggested looking at teen pregnancy as an epidemic and mandating more uniformity in programs to prevent it. “We’re taking a lot away from our teenagers’ futures by not protecting their futures,” she said.

 

Solution must be multi-faceted.

Rebecca King, a coordinator in the Education Department’s Office of Healthy Schools, told the subcommittee, “I don’t think there’s a magic bullet. I think it’s going to take all of us working together, and that’s the education community, the medical community, the parents, because we see a cultural shift. We see that it’s OK to have a baby; it’s OK if you don’t go to career-technical [education] or college. I don’t know where that’s come from, but there’s been a huge cultural shift.”

The department follows the law by having health content standards that begin in sixth grade and go through 12th grade, she said. “But we’re finding that health has been pushed to the side a little bit,” King said. “We’re not proficient in anything except, as Pam said, injury prevention in the sixth grade. So we have a long way to go, and we need to really work towards that.”

Coordination, teamwork and goal-setting are needed, she said.

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, said he recalled seeing a correlation between school-based clinics and lower teen pregnancy rates. He said he would like to see a new comparison of teen pregnancy rates in counties with school-based clinics and those without them. However, Delegate Cliff Moore, D-McDowell, said there are clinics in both high schools in McDowell County, but the county has a high teen pregnancy rate.

King said more needs to be done to make sure that sex education is taught. She added that subjects that are not included in the WESTEST sometimes “get lost.” Poore suggested the subcommittee should raise the issue with the Department of Education at another meeting.

“There’s another piece to this puzzle I think we’re missing here. I don’t know whether it’s sociology. I don’t know if it’s psychology. What has made it OK to be 16 and pregnant?” – Delegate Carol Miller

Delegate Carol Miller, R-Cabell, said West Virginia has problems keeping kids in school and with a lack of parenting. She wondered whether there is a social issue causing West Virginia to do so poorly.  “There’s another piece to this puzzle I think we’re missing here,” she said. “I don’t know whether it’s sociology. I don’t know if it’s psychology. What has made it OK to be 16 and pregnant?”

 

 

 

 

By Jim Wallace

West Virginia outpaces neighboring states in the rate of suicides among teenagers, but officials working on the problem are hopeful that the Jason Flatt Act and other measures will bring that rate down. The Jason Flatt Act, which is named for a Tennessee teenager who took his life, is a new law in West Virginia that requires teachers to get two hours of suicide prevention training each year.

Members of the Select Committee on Children, Juveniles and Other Issues took up the issue of teen suicide at their October meeting.

“Teen suicide, in particular, is a tragic event for the family, for the friends, for fellow students and the community of the teenager involved.” – Dan Christy

“Teen suicide, in particular, is a tragic event for the family, for the friends, for fellow students and the community of the teenager involved,” Dan Christy, director of the West Virginia Health Statistics Center in the Bureau for Public Health, said. “In the most recent 10-year period, 122 teenagers, 13 to 19, have taken their own lives.”

Christy told the committee that, out of 1,063 deaths among teenagers from 2001 to 2010, the leading cause was motor vehicle accidents, which caused 435 of those deaths. In second place with 122 deaths was suicide. After that came accidental poisoning, homicide, cancer and other causes, but their numbers were much lower, he said.

During that decade, West Virginia averaged 12 teen suicides per year. The highest number was 22 in 2002, and the lowest was eight in 2000. Christy said five times more males than females – 104 to 18 – committed suicide.

“In West Virginia, the primary means of suicide for both teenagers and adults has been firearms,” he said. The second leading cause has been hanging, the third has been overdoses, and jumping, carbon monoxide and falling off a moving object have been far behind. Christy said some cases are judgment calls in determining whether a death was caused by accident or suicide, and it is up to the medical examiner make the determination when it’s unclear. He added that only four suicides occurred to children under age 13 during the decade.

West Virginia ranked 16th among the states with a rate of 7.7 deaths per 100,000 teens, according to the statistics he was using. Ohio was 32nd with a rate of 6.3. Kentucky was 27th with 6.6. Virginia was 35th with 6.0. Maryland was 41st with 6.2. Pennsylvania was 46th with 5.9. Alaska had the highest rate at 23 deaths per 100,000 teens. All the states with worse rates than West Virginia are west of the Mississippi, Christy said, but it’s not clear why.

 

Bureau considers teen suicide an important problem.

Michelle O’Bryan, director of the Injury Prevention Program in the Bureau for Public Health, “The number of teen suicides in West Virginia is of great concern.” Suicide prevention is a priority for her agency, she said.

Instead of the 13- to 19-year-old age range used by Christy, O’Bryan used an age range of 10 to 24, which is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses. She said the CDC reported the United States lost 12 youths per day to suicide in 2009, when West Virginia ranked 22nd in the nation.

Each year about 157,000 youths ages 10 to 24 receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at emergency departments across the United States, she said. According to a youth risk behavior survey in 2011, more than 10 percent of West Virginia high school students seriously considered attempting suicide or made a plan about how to kill themselves. O’Bryan said almost 30 percent reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row, and some groups are at higher risk than others.“But deaths from youth suicide are only part of the problem,” O’Bryan said. “More young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. Within a typical high school classroom, it is likely that three students – one boy and two girls – have made a suicide attempt within the last year.”

“Boys are more likely than girls to die from suicide,” she said. “Of the reported suicides in the 10 to 24 age group, 81 percent of the deaths were males and 19 percent were females. The majority of youths who died by suicide used firearms.”

O’Bryan said risk factors for suicide include: a history of previous suicide attempts; a history of depression or other mental illness, alcohol or drug use; a stressful life event or loss; easy access to lethal methods like firearms; and exposure to suicidal behavior of others.

“Suicide is a serious public health problem that can have lasting harmful effects on individuals, families and communities,” she said, so her agency wants to reduce the factors that increase the risk and to increase the factors that promote resilience. O’Bryan said some of the factors than can help protect teens from trying suicide include: family and school connectivity, reduced access to firearms, safe schools, academic achievement and self-esteem.

In September 2010, West Virginia’s Injury Prevention Program moved from the Office of Community Health Systems and Health Promotions to the Office of Maternal, Child and Family Health. Since then, much time and many resources have been devoted to suicide prevention, O’Bryan said. Those efforts include:

  • Working with others to develop a public service announcement focused on deterring bullying, which began airing in April;
  • Cosponsoring a statewide conference on suicide prevention with experts on bullying, suicide prevention and intervention; and
  • Assisting in the development of statewide training and workshops to educate providers, teachers and other professionals.

Her agency now is working with the Jason Flatt Act in helping teachers to get two hours of suicide prevention training each year. O’Bryan said plans include development of a statewide crisis response protocol for use when a student is believed to be at risk of suicide. She said a two-day meeting is scheduled in November to bring together local, state and national experts in suicide prevention. During that meeting, workgroups and task forces in violence injury prevention will be formed, she said.“Although even one death due to suicide is too many, it should be noted that the numbers are going down,” O’Bryan said. “We have gone from a rate of 11.1 per 100,000 in the year 2006 down to a rate of 8.3 in 2010 for youth aged 15 to 19. So it seems as though the prevention efforts and programs taking place across the state are having an impact.”

 

Program trains teachers and others to help at-risk teenagers.

Barri Faucett, director of the ASPEN Project for the Prestera Center, said suicide is the “seven-letter word no one wants to talk about,” but it is preventable. ASPEN stands for Adolescent Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention.

The project got a $1.4 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which considers adolescents to be ages 15 through 24, in 2006 and another $1.4 million in 2009. So it has had federal funding for seven years and hopes to continue for another year with help from the Office for Injury Prevention, Faucett said.

The project has trained more than 7,000 people, including child care workers, teachers and mental health care workers, to work with at-risk youth, she said. In Kanawha County, the project established mobile quick response services, Faucett said.

Statewide, the ASPEN Project goes into schools and, with parental consent, screens students. Faucett said the project screened about 1,000 kids last year, and about one-third of them were determined to be at risk. At one school, a boy approached the presenter and said he was worried about himself, because he had guns under his bed, she said. The project was able to get him into treatment.

When asked what suicide prevention services are available for children, O’Bryan said they are lacking, but they are being developed as a result of the passage of the Jason Flatt Act. Faucett agreed that services are lacking, which is why the ASPEN Project developed mobile quick responses for some schools.

“Partnering with the West Virginia Department of Ed. in regard to Jason Flatt [Act] has been a very, very valuable experience,” she said.“Another thing though that we work on promoting is connectivity, because connectivity is the single most protective factor against suicides,” she said. It can be especially important in rural areas where people have less access to mental health services, Faucett said.

O’Bryan said her agency had a meeting scheduled later in October with the West Virginia Council for the Prevention of Suicide to discuss strategic planning for setting up a statewide crisis response team to help children deemed to be at risk.

 

 

By Jim Wallace

Legislators now know that it would cost no more than $464,765 to make sure that all West Virginia public schools have automated external defibrillators (AEDs). The cost is likely to be substantially less, but it was the best estimate that Rebecca King, coordinator of school health services in the Education Department’s Office of Healthy Schools, could come up with by the time she met with told members of Education Subcommittee A during their October meeting.

King told them her estimate is based on a survey she did of schools around the state, but 98 schools did not respond. If some of those schools already have defibrillators, the cost of providing them to schools without them would be lower. Of the schools that did respond to the survey, 488 said they had defibrillators and 173 said they did not. King said pre-kindergarten programs located away from school sites were not included in her survey.

The issue of whether schools should have defibrillators has been around less than a decade. In September 2004, the Food and Drug Administration allowed automated external defibrillators to be obtained without prescriptions. King, who gave a demonstration of how one works, said use of a defibrillator increases the likelihood that someone would survive sudden cardiac arrest.

“For every minute that there’s not an AED on site, the research shows us that the survival rate decreases 10 percent, so we want a pretty quick response.” – Rebecca King

“For every minute that there’s not an AED on site, the research shows us that the survival rate decreases 10 percent, so we want a pretty quick response,” she said.

When asked whether the defibrillators can be used by people with no training, King said they could be, but her office would prefer to have people trained in their use and ready to use them at each school. In the fiscal note she prepared, she allowed for having three trained persons at each school, so if two people were out, one still would be there.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, called King’s estimate “exciting.” Stollings, who is a physician, said if some units were donated to schools, it would lessen the financial burden on the state to make sure all schools have them.

King said she was surprised to learn that only four schools in Kanawha County responded that they had defibrillators. “So 26 percent of this fiscal note falls into Kanawha County, which was quite shocking, because I would think with a lot of the hospitals and acute care and the different specialty providers in the area that we would have more AEDs in a larger county,” she said.

When asked if the defibrillators would be readily available for use during extracurricular activities, King said the National Association of Sports and Physical Education recommends that they should be located in gyms. She said many incidents of cardiac arrest occur during sporting events or other physical activity. King added that there have been two deaths, both of students with cardiac anomalies, at West Virginia schools when defibrillators were not used. One school had a unit on site, she said, but it had not been set up and registered.

“Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death among young athletes,” King said.  About 75 percent of all the cardiac arrests in schools occur in relationship to sporting events, she said, and one-third of those involve students while the other two-thirds involve non-student adults, such as spectators, teachers and staff.

Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, said school bus operators and aides must have training in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and first aid training. “Having these in school is a really good idea,” he said.

King said one in every four students in West Virginia has a medical condition that requires special care. So she suggested that many people in the schools already might have some special medical training.

On the subject of having every school establish a medical emergency action plan, King said it would be better to establish one statewide plan for extracurricular activities. She also recommended that counties should develop teams to train people locally.

The subcommittee also has been considering problems with concussions during school sporting events. King said pre-athletic medical screenings have been recommended since 1998, but they have not been attached to any state or national standards. What’s called a sports physical often is just a brief screening, she said. Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, is a physician who provides medical screenings for athletes. He said his office gives more than brief screenings, but they don’t include electrocardiograms unless a student has ever fainted.

King said the medical screenings students get before participating in sports are the only medical checkups some of them get at all.

“We would just like to see more adolescents develop a medical home and go to a medical home. What we find is that they really don’t. We’re looking at probably less than 20 percent that actively annually go to a medical provider for an annual physical head to toe.” – Rebecca King

“We would just like to see more adolescents develop a medical home and go to a medical home,” she said. “What we find is that they really don’t. We’re looking at probably less than 20 percent that actively annually go to a medical provider for an annual physical head to toe.”

 

Medical volunteers do have liability coverage at sporting events.

During the subcommittee’s September meeting, Stollings and others expressed concern that physicians and other medical professionals who volunteer their services during school sporting events might not have liability insurance coverage. But during the October meeting, staff attorney Dave Mohr reported that he had spoken with the Board of Risk and Insurance Management and learned that such providers are included under BRIM’s professional liability coverage. However, he said he and others are looking at “tweaking” legislation and making sure medical providers are aware they have coverage. Some draft legislation could be ready for the subcommittee’s review in November, he said.

Mohr also presented a report on of the laws of many states that address concussions in youth sports. West Virginia was not among the 33 states included. Of those 33 states, 27 require development of programs, rules or protocols, 18 to 20 require training for coaches, 27 provide education for parents, 27 provide education for students, 30 have return-to-play restrictions, and 29 require medical clearance for return to play. Only Maine and Rhode Island require head injury baseline assessment. Six states also include cities, parks, clubs and other organizations in their laws dealing with concussions. Those states are Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Utah.

Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said he would like to get statistics on concussions in high school football games this season. He also requested having someone from BRIM come to the committee to talk about what is covered and what is not.

 

 

By Jim Wallace

The Public Employees Insurance Agency intends to avoid changes in employees’ premiums, but employers’ premiums is another matter. Other changes in the works include having members go back through the process of certifying through affidavits whether they use tobacco products.

PEIA Director Ted Cheatham explained the proposed changes to members of the Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors and Long-Term Care at their October meeting. He said the agency is not expecting any additional money from the state, so it cannot raise premiums on employees of state agencies or school boards. That’s because of a law requiring 80 percent of premiums to come from the employing agencies and 20 percent to come from the employees.

But PEIA does want to change the level of employers’ premiums based on which plans their employees choose for coverage. About 95 percent of members are in the agency’s standard, traditional plan, Plan A, Cheatham said. But PEIA would like to get some of them to switch to the alternative plans, Plans B, C and D, which have lower premiums in exchange for other adjustments, such as higher deductibles, copayments and maximum out-of-pocket expenses.

“Plan A is being subsidized by the other plans, because its loss ratio is extremely high, but in the big picture, PEIA is doing fine.” – Ted Cheatham

“Plan A is being subsidized by the other plans, because its loss ratio is extremely high, but in the big picture, PEIA is doing fine,” Cheatham said. “Today, all the employers pay the same amount of money regardless of what plan their employees choose. Whether you choose Plan A, B, C or D, the employer pays a flat fee. We’re looking to change that. We’re looking to change that and make the plans more in line with the loss ratio over time.”

So what PEIA wants to do is to raise the premium for the employer to 101 percent for Plan A and reduce it by 20 percent on Plan B, 20 percent on Plan C and 10 percent on Plan D.

“That’s revenue neutral,” Cheatham said. “If people stay where they are, there’s going to be no change in state revenue.”

However, he said, if people move to the other plans, the state will save money over time, which is the goal of the change. Cheatham said the agency could later look at lowering employee premiums on Plans B, C and D.

Another change PEIA wants to make will affect people who get raises – or demotions – during the fiscal year. PEIA’s premiums are based on salary levels, but the way the system works today is that if someone’s salary changes in the middle of the fiscal year, that person’s premiums are not adjusted until the next fiscal year. Cheatham said the agency wants to begin making premium changes as soon as salary changes occur beginning next July at the start of the 2014 fiscal year.

Already in the works is a change in the out-of-pocket maximum for members with family coverage, because the PEIA Finance Board voted to make the change last year. Beginning in July, the maximum for family coverage will be twice the level for single coverage rather than 1.5 times that level, as it is today.

 

Tobacco discount cheaters are targeted.

PEIA also plans to revisit the issue of premium discounts for people who avoid using tobacco. As the agency did a few years ago, it will require members who claim the discount to affirm through affidavits they do not use tobacco products. Cheatham said about 26 percent of PEIA members are tobacco users, and even though that is higher than the national rate, he believes some people who claim not to use tobacco are cheating.

“About 30 people a month come to us to get Chantix who are saying they are tobacco-free people,” he said, referring to the brand name of a form of Varenicline, a smoking cessation aid. “I know there is fraud out there. It’s probably not intentional. We are going to re-solicit tobacco [affidavits] this year.”

Cheatham said smokers are about 4 percent to 5 percent more expensive for PEIA than nonsmokers.

Other ways PEIA is trying to trim costs involves specialty drugs, wellness options, drugs for diabetics and emergency room use.

Specialty drugs are expensive, averaging about $2,600 per month for the people PEIA insures, so Cheatham said the agency will suggest moving them at least to $85 copayments, which is the level for third-tier drugs. He said the agency wants to start building preferred and non-preferred specialty drug classes and could establish a $100 copayment for non-preferred specialty drugs.

Further ahead, PEIA would like to build a stand-alone specialty drug benefit, but the agency is not sure whether to move it to the medical side or the pharmacy side. Cheatham said the agency is analyzing what the costs would be.

Wellness options, such as lifestyle and fitness coaching, are means for PEIA to hold down its costs by trying to keep members in better health. Cheatham said his agency plans to expand its medical home program and is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a diabetes prevention program. The agency also is trying to find a way to get members involved in Weight Watchers, he said, and will give members a second chance at participating in its current weight management program, which had been available only once for each person.

Cheatham said PEIA wants to make changes for diabetics that will move many of them into using preferred-brand or generic drugs for long-term maintenance. The agency’s Face-to-Face program for diabetics had waived copayments on all drugs for them, but it will stop waiving copayments on the more expensive third-tier, non-preferred-brand drugs, he said.

Another change involving copayments is that those for emergency room visits all will go up to $100, but those copayments will be waived for individuals who are admitted to hospitals.

 

Retirees are due for few changes but could be switched to a different calendar.

For retirees who are too young to get Medicare, PEIA is proposing no rate increase and to make the same benefit changes as for those still in the active workforce. Cheatham said they also will have the option of choosing Plan B in addition to Plan A for the first time.

Retirees who can get Medicare will face no premium increase and no changes in benefits. Cheatham said PEIA also will offer them two more Medicare Advantage programs from Humana, one that is 15 percent less expensive and one that is 30 percent less expensive.

But another change PEIA wants to make for retirees on Medicare will require help from the Legislature to alter state law. Cheatham said the agency wants to put them on a calendar year instead of the state fiscal year, which runs from July through June. That’s because the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services rejected a waiver PEIA requested for Medicare Part D drugs. Because the agency does not run on a calendar year, it is losing the advantage of getting reinsurance from the Medicare program for the Part D drugs, which Cheatham said is worth about $9 million a year.

So what he wants legislators to let him do is to move to a calendar year for Medicare retirees only, which would require a change in state code. That would mean switching them next year first to a six-month plan that would run from July through December and then a 12-month plan beginning the following January. Cheatham wants to make no changes in premiums or benefits over that entire 18-month period, but he also does not want to change deductibles or maximum out-of-pocket expenses for the six-month plan.

“That’s the tradeoff to keep your rates flat and your plan flat for 18 months,” he said. “And let’s face it folks: The deductible is $25. Does it really make sense to cut it in half to $12.50? The out-of-pocket max is $700, and I think about 1,500 people hit that number last year.”

Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, complained that many patients who are sent from the hospital in Elkins to another hospital often are subjected to duplicate testing, which she thought created unnecessary expenses for PEIA and other insurers.

“It’s absolutely a problem,” Cheatham said, but that practice is hard to curb. He said, for example, that he has had discussions with a doctor in Kanawha County who claims that tests at Boone Memorial Hospital are not done right, but the doctor refuses to put anything in writing. Another reason for the problem is that hospitalists want a baseline of tests whenever a new patient comes into their facilities, he said.

Many of the changes Cheatham discussed with legislators will also be discussed at a series of public hearings in November. They will be held at six locations around the state:

  • Monday, Nov. 12, at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg
  • Tuesday, Nov. 13, at the Ramada Inn in Morgantown
  • Wednesday, Nov. 14, at West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling
  • Thursday, Nov. 15, at Marshall University’s medical school in Huntington
  • Monday, Nov. 19, at Tamarack in Beckley
  • Tuesday, Nov. 20, at the Charleston Civic Center

Each of those hearings will begin at 6:00 p.m.

The PEIA Finance Board will consider comments made at those meetings before acting on any changes for the next fiscal year. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for December 6.

 

Editor’s Note – Jim Wallace is a former government reporter for theCharleston 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.