News

April 7, 2014 - Volume 34 Issue 18

 

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

 

 

By Jim Wallace

The man who has led the West Virginia Department of Education since early last year won’t be there much longer. State Supt. Jim Phares has announced that he plans to retire as soon as the state school board replaces him. The board has entered into a contract with a national search firm, Ray and Associates, Inc., to find the next state superintendent.

Phares took over as state superintendent in January 2013. That was several weeks after the board fired Jorea Marple from the position in November 2012. Chuck Heinlein served as superintendent in the interim before returning to his position as deputy superintendent.

Before assuming the state job, Phares was superintendent of the Randolph County schools. He previously served as superintendent in Marion and Pocahontas counties. He also worked in Virginia.

The search for the next state superintendent will be different than those in the past because of changes in state law made by the legislature last year. The superintendent no longer must have a master’s degree in education but can have a master’s degree in any subject. Also, legislators removed the $175,000 cap on the superintendent’s salary.

Editor’s Note: Refer to Commentary, “State needs a permanent superintendent of schools

 

 

By Jim Wallace

Members of the Commission on School District Governance and Administration are still trying to figure out how to change West Virginia’s public education system. But based on discussions at their latest meeting, they are leaning toward making recommendations that are bold and could lead to a hybrid system that decentralizes some control but also promotes more shared services among districts and increased centralization of some functions.

As they keep reminding themselves, the main goal is to have a system that promotes better student achievement, but it also needs to be more efficient. Through their meetings over several months last year and in the early part of this year, they also have come to realize that the structures set up in the past don’t work so well now and can’t be expected to work well in the future because budgets have become tighter, West Virginia’s population has changed demographically and geographically, and the needs for the workforce of the 21st century are much different than those for the workforce of the 20th century.

To get a better handle on what changes are needed, the commission – with the help of the West Virginia School Board Association – brought in several experts from different perspectives to explain what will be needed in the future, as well as how the state ended up with the system it has.

“Determine what services that you want delivered. Don’t decide to set up the governance first and then the services, because if you do, you just keep the model we have.” – Howard O’Cull

“Determine what services that you want delivered,” WVSBA Executive Director Howard O’Cull advised the commission. “Don’t decide to set up the governance first and then the services, because if you do, you just keep the model we have.”

 Commission Chairman Tom Campbell, who also is a member of the state school board, noted that the education efficiency audit that came out more than a year ago said that West Virginia tended to consolidate what shouldn’t be consolidated and not consolidate what should be consolidated. “I don’t think that’s a fault to be assigned to anyone,” he said. “We’ve seen a dramatic change in government historically, and education is tied to government, which changes very slowly.”

The consensus among commission members was that the legislature should allow more decision-making at the lower levels of the education system, particularly at the school and district levels.

Campbell, who served several terms in the House of Delegates and once was chairman of the House Education Committee, said he wished that every legislator could take time off to serve on a local school board or the state school board. That’s because his perspective on the education system has “changed dramatically” since he became a state school board member. One problem with the way legislators view education issues, he said, is that their constituents are more likely to talk to them about getting roads paved and making sure no one takes their guns away from them than to talk about education issues.

“It’s extremely important, and people like to say they value education, but a day-to-day legislator’s life is much more involved going to ramp suppers,” Campbell said.

Despite that, he said, there might be a window of opportunity in next year’s legislative session to get significant education reforms, but the commission and the state school board would have to push for them.

“If we stay bold, we’ll get their attention. Maybe we can get the legislature to move on some of these things.” – Tom Campbell

“If we stay bold, we’ll get their attention,” Campbell said. “Maybe we can get the legislature to move on some of these things.”

Newt Thomas, another commission member, said the “frailty of the system” is that so much has been embedded in code. “We defer to the legislature to make decisions, but they’re ill-informed to make so many of them,” he said. “The board of education or the Department of Education should be authorized and responsible for making these decisions that we’re asking the legislature to make.”

Another commission member, Bill Smith, who is superintendent of the Cabell County schools, noted that county school boards are not allowed to do anything that state code does not specifically authorize them to do. That should be changed, he said.

Campbell said the state school board has become bolder in the past few years and is finding its way on what it can and cannot do. In the past, there was less separation between the department and the board and the legislature, he said, and there is a lot of precedence in West Virginia for the legislature to control certain issues.

“Since the legislature controls the purse strings, it’s got to be a little bit of a cooperative effort,” Campbell said. Then he noted that there are examples of how the legislature has improved other systems by relinquishing direct control. One was the privatization of the workers’ compensation system. Another was the establishment of the Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board to oversee that agency’s activities. “I would argue that PEIA has been well managed, but when the legislature tried to manage it, it didn’t work well, because you get too much politics in it,” he said.

Thomas said the education system doesn’t need to be micromanaged. Smith added that if that problem is not corrected, little else the commission does will matter much.

But Campbell warned, “The legislature is naturally suspicious of that. One of the reasons is because there are pockets in West Virginia where you’ve given that flexibility and it’s led to a great deal of corruption. So there’s a reason that, as a body, they’re suspicious. But I think that that suspiciousness, and I’ll call it insecurity, is holding us back.”

Campbell gave legislators credit for good intentions and wanting to improve the education system, but he said some understand the system better than others. There is so much “noise” around the legislative process that it affects efforts to make changes, and it has led to a very inflexible system, he said, but he saw that as all the more reason for the commission to try to push for changes in the next year.

“So it’s a great opportunity if we work together with the legislature,” Campbell said. “The fact is we have to work with them. We can’t run over them.”

Although the legislature repealed some sections of code in last year’s education reform legislation, temptations to put new restrictions into law returned this year. One bill that Campbell cited in that regard was House Bill 4307, which would have permitted students to have certain sweet treats at school parties and other occasions. It was dubbed the “cupcake bill.” That is the type of issue that should be left for the state school board and not put into legislation, Campbell said. (The House passed the bill, but it died in a Senate committee.)

Dave Mohr, senior analyst for the House Education Committee, said one reason such issues get addressed through legislation is that people are more comfortable taking their problems to legislators, who are elected from all around the state, rather than to the members of the state school board, who are unelected.

“The system isn’t working.” – Newt Thomas

Thomas said, “The system isn’t working.”

Campbell suggested that it would work better if terms in the House of Delegates would be lengthened to four years instead of just two. “A House member now is always running,” he said. “Particularly with the money in the campaigns now, a House member is running all the time.”

That’s one reason why Campbell no longer serves in the legislature, he said. By contrast, he likes it that a term on the state school board is nine years, but he said, the average West Virginian likely feels more of a connection with a local school board than with the state board.

“Most people think that their school is fine, but the rest of the education system is all screwed up.” – Dave Mohr

Mohr said, “Most people think that their school is fine, but the rest of the education system is all screwed up.”

Campbell said he perceives “growing energy” among state board members, who are interested in change. “We are a more active board now,” he said. “Whether people like what the board’s doing or not, we are more active. I don’t know when a superintendent had ever been dismissed before.” That was a reference to the state board’s decision to dismiss former state Supt. Jorea Marple late in 2012.

“The other thing is maybe things are getting so bad, particularly financially, that it’s a good time to be talking about this,” Campbell said. “I think this next budget year could be even worse than the past one.”

 

Members see opportunity for significant change.

Commission member Doug Lambert, who is superintendent of the Pendleton County schools, said that might give the commission “the perfect opportunity” to get significant change. He noted that the state school board created the commission in response to a request from the governor. The commission already has made one bold recommendation for more flexibility in how school district use their funding, which he said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is interested in.

The commission also has discussed such proposals as schools without borders, consolidation of services, using Regional Education Service Agencies (RESAs) more effectively, and the privatization of such services as child nutrition and bus transportation, Lambert said. Although state school board members haven’t said they support such initiatives, he noted, at least they haven’t come out against them.

“It’s time we’ve got to put this down on paper,” he said.

Campbell said his fellow state board members had some concern that the commission’s recommendation for more local flexibility in funding matters might have gone too far.

“It may have,” Lambert said.

“But you got to start somewhere” Campbell said. “I think for education to succeed, it’s going to have to be as flexible a government entity as it can be.”

His perception was that commission members want to develop “a good concept of sharing of services, which includes regionalization and some centralization, but the loosening of some centralized control that’s in the code.” Campbell said the commission must consider how to work with the legislature to get what it wants.

Commission member Sallie Dalton, who is superintendent of the Greenbrier County schools, said she has found that the state school board gets blamed for many things the legislature puts into code. Citizens don’t understand whom to go to, she said.

Campbell said one problem affecting education reform in West Virginia is that school boards are big employers. Another problem is it’s a poor state, he said. “A poor state tends to have people that aren’t as well educated, and they have needs that are different from those that are educated,” Campbell said. “So it really is a time for leaders to step up and work together.”

Mohr said another problem is that, because of the aging of the population, many residents don’t have kids or grandkids in the school system anymore, so they are less likely to support the system.

Another reason Campbell cited for the commission to determine what should change and take its recommendations to the state board soon is that the next session of the legislature will occur in a non-election year, which is a good time to get something done. The House is likely to be close in numbers between Democrats and Republicans, no matter which party has control, he said. “They’re going to be looking for something they can agree on to actually do something, and this might be it,” he said.

Lambert agreed that the time might be right for more education reform, especially if the governor wants it, because legislators at least will consider the governor’s legislative proposals.

Mohr noted that the legislature this year passed a bill to allow district-wide school Innovation Zones, which could lead to more locally developed education reforms. He suggested that it could be useful to see how those reforms work out.

“I’m starting to hear some talk about that” Campbell said, adding that there seems to be agreement that the system has too much dysfunction. “As we solve that dysfunction, if we can also change the perception of people that look to come to West Virginia…who knows what we might have?” he said.

“Flexibility almost always lends itself to being more efficient.” – Tina Combs

Commission member Tina Combs, who also is a member of the state school board, said, “Flexibility almost always lends itself to being more efficient.”

Campbell said more local flexibility could lead to attracting more capable leaders to run for county school boards. He said a former Greenbrier County school board member told him he would love to return to the board if it were given more flexibility.

Thomas said the state school board apparently has more autonomy than some board members have realized. He referred to a 1988 Supreme Court decision (West Virginia Board versus Hechler), which said that any statutory provision that interferes with the rulemaking of the state board is unconstitutional.

Mohr said he has noticed that the state board is starting to move on some issues it tended to avoid in the past. “There have been times when they’ve come to ask us for authority to do something,” he said, suggesting that the board in the past wanted legislative cover for its actions. “It’s gone both ways. There’ve been times when the legislature got mad about something the state board did and tried to put something in statute to keep it from doing it.”

 

Demographer presents troubling statistics about population trends.

The commission’s discussion occurred in the midst of presentations from experts such as Unk Christiadi, the chief demographer at West Virginia University. He told the commission that West Virginia is facing changes in its population that present challenges for the education system. In fact, his current projections are less favorable than those he had presented previously to the WVSBA and other organizations.

“The most important difference is on the timing of the population decline.” – Unk Christiadi

“The most important difference is on the timing of the population decline,” Christiadi said. His earlier projections were for West Virginia’s population to decline starting after 2025, but now Christiadi expects that decline to start after 2015.

Not only is the state’s population likely to decline, but it also is aging faster than the national population is aging. Since 1970, West Virginia’s population already had ranked among the oldest in the United States. In 2010, the state’s median age was 40.5 years, which was third highest in the nation, and the share of people aged 65 and older was 16.0 years, which was second highest in the nation.

As the Baby Boomers grow older, they move from one age group to another. In the next 20 years, they will move into the oldest age group. Christiadi said fewer people are in the age groups behind them, so the proportion of younger people in West Virginia’s population is declining. The number of people in the birth to 19-year-old group – the group with school-age children – has been declining since 1970, he said, and that is the group expected to have the largest decrease in numbers by 2020.

Based on that trend, Christiadi initially was puzzled about why enrollment in West Virginia’s public schools did not decline significantly in the past decade. Then he realized that increased enrollment in early childhood programs counteracted the trend. Now that the early childhood programs have completed their legislatively mandated expansion across the state, overall enrollment has started to decline, he said.

Dalton added, “It will probably be worse in some areas than in others.”

West Virginia’s birth rate has been declining since 1960, Christiadi said, and the number of women of child-bearing age has been declining since 1990. His projections are that the state will have about 12,000 fewer women of child-bearing age in about 20 years and that births will be fewer than 400,000 by then. Most counties will face population decline, while only seven are projected to have increases, he said.

What Christiadi cannot predict with any sense of assurance is whether migration to the state might counteract the trends toward declining population. Thomas said that if West Virginia would get the ethane cracker plant planned for Wood County, it could help attract many people to the state for high-paying jobs. But barring such an influx, Christiadi said, West Virginia is likely to be unable to have enough population by the 2020 to keep three members in the U.S. House of Representatives and will drop to just two after the next redistricting.

The state’s population in the birth-to-19-year-old age group is expected to decline by 2.8 percent between 2010 and 2020 and by 1.9 percent between 2020 and 2030. Christiadi said that, among the seven counties predicted to see increases in the population of individuals from birth to 19, those expected to have the largest increases are Monongalia, Berkeley, Jefferson and Cabell. Among the other 48 counties predicted to experience declines in that youngest age group, he said, 10 will decline by more than 15 percent and 18 will decline by more than 10 percent.

Lambert said there would be pockets of population growth and pockets of deep decline. Campbell said that would mean there would be more diversity among West Virginia’s school districts. He said it makes it more likely that many districts will have to look for ways to share services. The state’s school districts now are essentially 55 comprehensive service centers, he said, but what the state needs instead is a set of instructional centers that could have many of their business functions operating across county lines.

West Virginia’s School Aid Formula worked better when the state was more homogenous, Campbell said, but it now needs to be adapted to the changed circumstances. He said shared services would be more important for smaller counties, while larger counties could be more independent.

“You guys are dealing with real problems.” – Unk Christiadi

After listening to that discussion, Christiadi said, “You guys are dealing with real problems.”

 

 

Current system’s ability to adapt is questioned.

O’Cull told the commission that discussions among county school district officials last summer as a result of House Bill 2940, which the legislature passed in its 2013 session, touched on some of the issues the commission has been considering. He said the biggest issue that came out of those discussions was whether the current School Aid Formula is able to adapt to the changes that have occurred in the population served by public schools. O’Cull also said that West Virginia has spent many years consolidating schools within counties, but what seems to be needed more now is to have schools that serve students across county borders. Campbell agreed that it would be inefficient to continue to consolidate schools just within counties. In some counties, schools were consolidated with the promise of having broader curricula, O’Cull said, but declining population prevented them from delivering on those promises. Going to a system in which schools would serve populations across county borders would have some benefits, he said, but there also would be challenges, such as figuring out how to deal with county-bound factors, such as excess levies.

Another problem that O’Cull said should be addressed is the geographic distribution of RESAs, because some districts don’t think they are grouped with other counties in the way that makes the best sense. Campbell agreed, adding that not only has the population shifted since the RESAs were formed in the 1970s but the highway system also has changed.

“When the RESAs were formed, to get to Lewisburg from Beckley took two hours, and now it’s 45 minutes,” he said. “I think there’s some value to the RESA model, but I think it’s probably kind of hard to suggest that a RESA model that was designed in 1970, particularly with the change in population, still fits in 2014.”

“We’ve got to look at a thorough and efficient system of public schools, a system that determines what the districts are supposed to do and try to provide it most efficiently.” –Newt Thomas

Campbell said flexibility should be built into the system so it can adapt to such changes in the future. But Thomas said, “Changing RESAs would be only moving chairs around. We’ve got to look at a thorough and efficient system of public schools, a system that determines what the districts are supposed to do and try to provide it most efficiently.”

O’Cull said the biggest change in the RESAs occurred in 2002, when they were brought under the direct control of the state school board. That changed their focus, he said, and they became more entrepreneurial.

Commission member Kathy Parker, who is a member of the Braxton County school board, said the commission should look are what the RESAs do and where they should be located.

 

State is going through tough fiscal period.

Another presentation the commission received came from Mark Muchow, deputy secretary of the Department of Revenue, who explained the state’s fiscal condition and the outlook for the years ahead. He began with a warning that went directly to the issue of financial support for schools.

“Senior citizens are going to be a key to our future fiscal success,” Muchow said. In particular, he said, their willingness to pay taxes will be important.

West Virginia had a difficult year in 2013, he said, because it had growth of only 1.5 percent, which ranked 50th in the nation. Ten sectors of the state’s economy had negative growth, Muchow said. The federal government’s budget cutbacks and sequestration also hurt West Virginia, and the state’s exports declined, he said.

Although many people have complained about the federal government’s regulatory policies on coal mining, Muchow said that coal is on the decline no matter what the government does. Coal is having trouble competing with natural gas, especially when prices for natural gas have been falling, he said, and 10 percent of coal-fired power generation plants are being retired. He said there has been some rebound in steam coal production, but it has benefitted northern West Virginia counties more than southern counties.

“We have too many residents relative to the size of our economy.” – Mark Muchow

Muchow said West Virginia is hindered by having a low labor participation rate that is just 85 percent of the national average. Although the state has about 1.8 million residents, he said, its economy is structured for 1 million to 1.2 million people. “We have too many residents relative to the size of our economy,” he said.

Other points about West Virginia’s economy that Muchow made were:

  • Most of West Virginia’s growth in the manufacturing sector recently has been in the woods products industry.
  • West Virginia’s economy depends more on health care, government and mining than the rest of the nation.
  • The state’s gross domestic product has switched from being dominated by mining to being dominated by manufacturing.
  • The rise of natural gas could lead to more manufacturing, although West Virginia doesn’t have as much land suitable for manufacturing as other states. Much of the state’s available land for manufacturing is along the Ohio River.
  • Natural gas production is less labor-intensive than coal mining.
  • If the state gets a cracker plant, it would take at least five years to see a positive effect on the economy.
  • Severance tax revenue is not growing and in some cases is declining.
  • West Virginians’ combination of income, sales and property taxes is low compared to the taxes faced by residents of other states.
  • Lack of infrastructure – mainly pipelines – hinders the natural gas industry in West Virginia.
  • West Virginia is in its second straight year – and third year of the last five – of decreasing revenues. The state would need growth of 5.2 percent the rest of this fiscal year to meet its budget estimate.
  • Despite other revenue problems, the state road fund is up 4.1 percent.

“Every time we talk about a cost to general revenue, it’s a cost to education.” – Tom Campbell

Campbell said, “Every time we talk about a cost to general revenue, it’s a cost to education.”

Muchow said the state had to tap into its Rainy Day Fund for the first time to balance the next fiscal year’s budget, but it still has a health Rainy Day Fund. “As long as we have a healthy Rainy Day Fund, I think the grocery tax is going to stay off,” he said. However, he added, “Our reliance on Medicaid is scary.”

Campbell said what he learned from Muchow’s presentation is that the more efficient the public education system can be made the better, because money will be hard to come by. Although the governor and the legislature traditionally have avoided cutting funding for education, he said, the day could be coming when such cuts will have to be made. Muchow agreed and said that, although education is given preference in the budget, it could be subject to cuts. He suggested that something must be decentralized in West Virginia, and if it’s not education, it could by the highway system.

“I like local responsibility,” Campbell said. “If you don’t have local responsibility in funding, you have more of the welfare mentality.”

Muchow explained how tax systems work in several other states, including Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia, and compared them to West Virginia’s system. Generally, when a state does not have one type of tax or keeps it low, other types of taxes are higher. For example, states with little or no income tax tend to collect more in sales taxes. Muchow concluded by saying, “There is not perfect tax system.”

Mike McKown, director of the West Virginia Budget Office, followed Muchow’s presentation with a brief presentation about the state budget. He said many states suffered more during the recent recession than West Virginia did. They are recovering now and building up their budgets, including restoring funding to their formulas for aiding schools, he said. West Virginia avoided cutting its School Aid Formula, he said, but other states are restoring their rainy day funds while West Virginia is dipping into its fund.

Factors that are big unknowns for how they will affect West Virginia’s budget are the Affordable Care Act and the federal budget cutbacks tied to sequestration, McKown said.

The state is running 2.5 percent behind its budget estimates for the current fiscal year, he said, which is one reason why the governor called in January for a $33 million cut in spending. Fortunately, McKown, said, lottery revenues are running ahead of estimates, but the administration and legislature had to use $281 million in one-time funds to balance the next fiscal year’s budget, and they expect to have to do much the same for the fiscal year 2015 budget.

The biggest driver of the budget is Medicaid, which grew $80 million, while the rest of the budget grew only $1 million, he said.

“If you want to save real money, you got to adjust the School Aid Formula.” – Mike McKown

In regard to the education portion of the budget, McKown said, “If you want to save real money, you got to adjust the School Aid Formula.”

 

 

 

Commission considers how to make system more efficient while also improving student achievement.

As members of the commission discussed how the presentations they heard from Christiadi, Muchow and McKown would affect their recommendations, Dalton expressed dismay. “I feel like we’re on the Titanic throwing out the lifeboats,” she said.

Lambert said the commission must stay focused on its main goal, which is not to save money but to improve student achievement. Combs said that, if the education system would be made more efficient, there would be more time and money to focus on student achievement. Sharon Harsh, director of the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center, was there to help commission members refine their recommendations. She said improved efficiency could lead to greater effectiveness. Commission member Harry Shaffer, a lawyer from Boone County, said efficiency preserves capacity.

“The issue is that the system needs to look different in different parts of the state.” – Howard O’Cull

O’Cull said the true constituents of the education system are the students, so the commission should strive to find a model that would bring about the best student performance. “The issue is that the system needs to look different in different parts of the state,” he said.

On the issue of realigning and repurposing RESAs, O’Cull said some services consolidated at the RESA level should be done at the state level. “Just redesigning RESAs doesn’t get to it,” he said. “Our whole system needs to change.”

Thomas said change should come by focusing first on what is needed in each classroom and then building up from that. Campbell responded, “I’m afraid our system has gone the other way completely.”

Dalton said one problem that local school officials like her face is that so much of what comes to them from the state and federal governments has strings attached. They can’t just opt out of some services, she said. Campbell said many of the restrictions school districts face are “self-inflicted” by the Education Department’s interpretation of state and federal laws.

“I foresee in the next eight to 10 years…small counties not having the manpower to do what needs to be done, and it’s going to force the small counties into…a dilemma.” – Doug Lambert

Lambert said, “I foresee in the next eight to 10 years…small counties not having the manpower to do what needs to be done, and it’s going to force the small counties into…a dilemma.”

“And there’s no amount of money that will solve that,” Campbell added.

“No amount of money,” Lambert agreed. His district in Pendleton County has the second-lowest enrollment in West Virginia.

“I don’t want to abolish the county system, because I think it’s important,” Lambert said. “You close a county school board down and see what happens. I’m telling you, look out. You’ll have anarchy.”

Dalton said sharing services, such as those of an attendance director, would work better in some areas than others because of geography. Her district in Greenbrier County, which is almost as big as Rhode Island, would have trouble doing that because of the distance. But she said she grew up in Marshall County, where the school system’s administrative office is only nine miles away from the one in Ohio County. “I could see opportunities geographically where there could be this [sharing of services], because it makes sense,” she said. “There are small areas that have been divided by these arbitrary lines.”

Smith, who is from Huntington, said more resources are needed in areas with higher rates of poverty. In the Cabell County schools, the teachers and administrators meet to decide how to solve problems in the schools, he said, and that works well because everyone buys into the solutions. “Teachers know what they’re doing,” he said.

But Campbell said, “That’s not the public perception or the perception of the state Department of Education.” He added, “We’re driving good people out of classrooms every day.”

O’Cull suggested that district-wide Innovation Zones might help address such issues.

That discussion led to commission members deciding they want to hear from a few teachers at their next meeting, which is scheduled for May 2.

 

Finnish system interests commission members.

Thomas Alsbury, professor of educational administration and supervision at Seattle Pacific University, who addressed the commission through a phone connection, gave members new options to consider by describing some of the education systems he had worked with around the world. They seem most impressed with Finland, which has a high level of student achievement.

Alsbury said Finland went from a highly centralized system to a hybrid system. He said it has regional bodies similar to RESAs that handle management and administrative issues, leaving local school boards to focus mainly on education issues.

With that hybrid approach, he said, “There is clarity on who is responsible for what.”

By contrast, Alsbury did an analysis of the Jefferson County, Kentucky, school system, which includes Louisville, and found that the school board spends 70 percent of its time on management issues and only 30 percent on developing goals and monitoring the progress of the schools. WVSBA surveys have revealed similar ratios at county school board meetings in West Virginia.

“You would be plowing new ground with it.” – Thomas Alsbury

Although Finland decentralized its education system, Alsbury said some countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, do very well in student achievement despite having centralized systems. However, he said, the trend is for more countries to decentralize their systems. So far, he said, no American state has adopted a hybrid system like that of Finland. If West Virginia would choose a system like that, he said, “You would be plowing new ground with it.” 

Asked how it would affect the role of superintendents, Alsbury said that superintendents would focus on education matters when they were with their school boards and on management issues at the regional level. “You get less micromanaging,” he said.

O’Cull said that, under such a system, school boards might meet less often and have a more narrow focus on student achievement. Campbell suggested that about four-fifths of all the county school board seats would turn over if that happened.

One scenario O’Cull mentioned was centralizing some services in West Virginia and then having the regional bodies draw down those services to the districts. That would eliminate the ambiguity of the RESAs, he said. Also, he said, if members of regional boards would be elected, different types of persons would serve on them.

At the end of Alsbury’s presentation, Shaffer said, “We should have talked to him a long time ago.”

 

School Aid Formula has problems.

The commission also heard presentations on how the School Aid Formula works and how West Virginia developed the public education system it now has.

Mohr, as a longtime legislative aide who has worked mainly with the House Education Committee, said the basic funding formula is designed to equalize the effects of differences in property wealth from county to county. It’s fairly reliable, he said, but it has weaknesses, such as not covering all known areas of school expenses and having some steps not based on accurate cost figures.

Much of his presentation was a review of the historical changes from the Property Tax Limitation Amendment in 1932 through legislation passed this year. Mohr said the legislature has repealed about 60 statutes in the past two sessions to give school districts more flexibility, but more statutes need to be repealed.

Joe Panetta, assistant state superintendent in the Division of Student Support Services, explained the mechanics of the School Aid Formula. Commission members expressed concern that excess levies, which 43 districts have, are creating greater disparity among districts, counteracting the effects of the formula to make funding more equitable across the state.

“I think some of the factors have changed now that maybe make a statewide excess levy a little more palatable.” – Joe Panetta

Although attempts to get voters to approve a statewide excess levy have failed in the past, Panetta said that might not be the case in the future. “I think some of the factors have changed now that maybe make a statewide excess levy a little more palatable,” he said. One of the factors he cited is the reappraisal of property since the 1990s that have left some counties short of having 100 percent excess levies, so people might be more willing to have a statewide levy.

Campbell said another way to achieve the same end would be to have the legislature raise the levy rate in increments over several years. “Due to our geographic size and the spread of the population, we’re probably not funding education as well as we think we are,” he said.

Panetta agreed that the legislature has the legal power to raise levy rates. “One of the ways that the legislature can do that is that the tax commissioner does a study based on the assessed value every February 15, and it actually shows that our growth in tax revenues is less than 2 percent,” he said. “The law allows the legislature to set the levy rates on the regular levy to come up to the 2 percent without even having a hearing. So they leave money on the table, and I calculated it’s around $100 million of tax revenues.”

The commission heard some cautionary words from Howard Seufer, a lawyer from Bowles Rice, LLP, who works with the WVSBA. He said that, as members consider how to restructure West Virginia’s education system, they should not underestimate the backdrop of the Recht decision. That was the decision issued in the 1980s by Judge Arthur Recht that required the system to live up to the constitutional requirement of being both thorough and efficient. Seufer said the courts held onto jurisdiction in that case for 28 years before dismissing it in 2003, but they left open the possibility of revisiting it in the future.

“Be mindful that some people will test whatever you come up with,” Seufer said.

His suggestion was to consider the “power of incentives,” because they could lead to local innovations.  “Local people’s minds start turning when they see possibilities like that,” Seufer said.

Also, he said, it would not be as hard as some people imagine for school districts to cooperate with each other and with other agencies in the provision of services. Seufer said the law has language that “seems plainly to authorize those types of collaboration.” However, he said those provisions of the law are rarely used.

 

State’s economy is facing big changes.

At the end of their second day of meeting, the commission heard from Keith Burdette, secretary of the Department of Commerce, to get a better understanding about economic development possibilities, which could affect funding for public schools and where they would need to provide services.

Burdette said the trend for the coal industry is dramatically downward, because some coalfields have been worked out, and abundant natural gas and environmental pressures are making coal less competitive.

“Coal is under huge pressure across the globe. The coal economy will remain challenged.” – Keith Burdette

“Coal is under huge pressure across the globe,” he said. “The coal economy will remain challenged.”

That presents the state with challenges for helping the workforce adapt, Burdette said, because coal has been a huge part of West Virginia’s economy and culture. It’s difficult to persuade many people in the coalfields not to wait for a recovery, he said, because mining has been one of the few professions in which high school graduates were able to earn six-figure incomes.

Until this past year, West Virginia’s coal exports had grown to record levels, but they fell 40 percent since then, Burdette said. West Virginia is still one of the largest coal producers and exports twice as much coal as any other state, he said, but it’s unlikely any rebound in production will result in a rebound in coal employment.

In contrast, Burdette said, the natural gas industry has been expanding quickly. That growth has been based mainly along the Ohio River Valley, but it is starting to drift southward, he said. Although the industry initially brought in workers from other states, it was just a quick way to ramp up production, he said, and those out-of-state workers are being replaced by West Virginians.

“It is a monstrous explosion of activity,” Burdette said.

The Marcellus Shale basin also has many liquids, such as ethane. Burdette said that is important, because it can be used to create ethylene, which is used in manufacturing many products. West Virginia has the potential to become a huge world player, he said, but the big challenge is to stop the industry from shipping the chemicals out of the state and have them processed in the state instead. That’s why the state has been working hard to get one or more cracker plants, he said.

“We are exporting enough ethane to drive 12 world-class crackers.” – Keith Burdette

“We are exporting enough ethane to drive 12 world-class crackers,” Burdette said.

Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, has indicated it wants to build a cracker plant in Wood County. Burdette said it could employ several thousand construction workers and then have a permanent workforce of 500 to 1,000 fulltime employees. He is impressed that company officials have expressed concern that any incentives it receives from the state should not damage the local tax base for the schools. “That’s the type of corporate player we need,” he said.

“I’m highly confident that this deal gets done,” Burdette said. The project could break ground next year and go into production as early as 2019, he said.

The state also is talking with other companies in the industry about establishing other cracker plants, as well as manufacturers that would want to be near them, Burdette said. A cracker could generate 12,000 jobs, he said.

“This is a generational play,” Burdette said. The state has approached attracting a cracker the way a shopping mall tries to attract anchor stores, he said. “We need the anchor in the region,” he said.

Such developments could reverse West Virginia’s trend of losing population, Burdette said, because the types of jobs being considered would attract people to the state and get former West Virginia residents to move back.

Companies that have hired West Virginia workers like them, he said, but they are concerned that the state doesn’t have enough good workers. Therefore, Burdette said, the challenge will be to get kids into the right educational programs that will make them ready for the jobs that will come. He said more than 70 percent of students who graduate from high school with at least 3.0 grade-point averages need to take remedial courses in college, and that must change. “They need to be employable,” he said.

Burdette called for a “coordinated, partnered effort” to make sure students get better education and get ready for the workforce. “There is a level of frustration about all this,” he said. “People want it to be fixed.”

Campbell said, “That is why this commission has to produce.”

The two days of presentations and discussions produced what he called “a lot of positive energy,” so he wants the commission to take action soon. The plan for the May 2 meeting is to hear from a few teachers and perhaps a principal in the morning and then develop recommendations in the afternoon.

 

 

By Jim Wallace

A bill to establish district-wide Innovation Zones is among several education-related bills that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has signed into law.

The West Virginia School Board Association had urged the legislature to approve House Bill 4619, and association leaders were eager for the governor to sign it. The bill would authorize the state school board to designate eight county school systems as Innovation School Districts through a competitive application process. They would include two systems each from four student population density categories: sparse, low, medium and high.

For a district to participate, it would have to develop a plan for the innovations it would want to implement. That plan would have to be approved at the local level before going to the state board. If approved by the state board, the district could seek waivers of statutes, policies, rules and interpretations of rules over the five years of implementing the plan.

Other education bills Tomblin signed into law included:

  • House Bill 4228 – Repealing or removing certain provisions of education-related statutes that have expired or that require or provide for funding.
  • House Bill 4003 – Granting dual jurisdiction for enforcing truancy policies to counties where a student lives in one county and attends school in another.
  • House Bill 4302 – Allowing the use of county election officials to conduct elections for public school purposes.
  • House Bill 4316 – Creating the Student Data Accessibility and Transparency Act, requiring the Department of Education to make publicly available an inventory and index of all data elements with definitions of individual student data fields in the statewide longitudinal data system. The department also is required to create a data security plan, ensuring compliance with federal and state data privacy laws and policies.
  • House Bill 4373 – Revising requirements for driver education courses by providing options for permitted instructors and allowing courses outside of the regular school schedule. It also removes the requirement for the state superintendent to prescribe the course of instruction, as well as to license and periodically inspect, commercial drive education schools. In addition, it removes the requirement for secondary school courses to be offered to out-of-school youth and adults.
  • House Bill 4384 – Requiring teachers of a student with exceptional needs to either be present at an individualized education program (IEP) meeting or to read and sign a copy of the IEP plan.
  • House Bill 4608 – Defining dyslexia and dyscalculia in accordance with international standards. It also requires the state school board to ensure that all students receive appropriate screenings, evaluations and assessments.
  • House Bill 4618 – Establishing a transformative system of support for early literacy.
  • Senate Bill 209 – Allowing special needs students to participate in graduation ceremonies.
  • Senate Bill 252 – Authorizing school boards, superintendents and principals to allow certain expelled students the opportunity to return to school through a juvenile drug court program.
  • Senate Bill 391 – Giving teachers $1,000 across-the-board pay raises and school service personnel 2 percent increases.

Two versions of legislation – Senate Bill 432 and House Bill 4002 – sought by the WVSBA failed to get through the legislature’s regulation session, but a version in the form of Senate Bill 1009 did receive approval in the brief special session that was held after legislators finished work on the state budget. The bill changes a law that penalized school districts with reduced state aid when the assessors in their counties fell short of ensuring that real property assessments are at least 54 percent of market value. Without that change, three counties – Lincoln, Monongalia and Wyoming – would have faced the penalty this year.

Tomblin vetoed only eight bills, but one of them was Senate Bill 477, which would have given teachers the right to determine how they use their planning periods. In his veto message, he said he supports the policy that teachers should be “reasonably unburdened by other demands” during their planning periods. However, he said, the bill would “prevent principals and teachers from working in a collaborative manned to arrange the instructional day.”

“Senate Bill 477 would also impose additional costs on the already strained budgets of county boards of education.” – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

In addition, Tomblin said, “Senate Bill 477 would also impose additional costs on the already strained budgets of county boards of education.”

Leaders of the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia expressed disappointment with the veto.

 

 

 

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.