The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 28, 2012

Lawmakers field board reply to audit

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Board of Education President Wade Linger urged legislators on Tuesday to allow counties to alter their school calendars and reduce the role seniority plays in teacher hiring, among other measures drawn from or inspired by the recent audit of the state’s public school system.

Linger outlined the response to the audit approved last week by the board, which voted to endorse scores of the review’s recommendations while rejecting or amending less than a dozen. Released in January, the audit concluded that West Virginia has one of the most inflexible and bureaucrat-heavy school systems in the U.S. And while it spends more per pupil than most other states, by some measures, it ranks poorly for student performance, the report found.

“This current school board is stepping up to the plate,” Linger said while addressing a House-Senate subcommittee. “We’re certainly not satisfied with the performance. We’re willing to take bold steps to get on the right path.”

But several lawmakers pressed Linger for specifics. Senate Education Chair Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, cited the board’s response to the audit’s call for mandating at least 180 days of instruction annually. While the Legislature has been headed in that direction, the board disagreed with that approach. It instead favors the sort of “balanced” calendar that schedules school throughout the year. Four schools now follow a year-round calendar.

“We need to allow more control to go out to the counties, where they know what they need and what’s best for them,” Linger said. “We think it’s a good idea. We’re not ready to go as far as to force it on the districts.”

“That’s pretty weak,” Plymale replied, commenting later that “I see a lot of recommendations that you have here, but I don’t see specifics at to what we need to be doing as a Legislature.”

The board embraced the audit’s finding that the education system was overly laden with bureaucracy. Before her abrupt firing Nov. 15 as state schools superintendent, Jorea Marple had begun overseeing a board-approved effort to attack that rigid structure by combining offices and eliminating vacant job posts. Delegate Brian Savilla asked Linger why the board isn’t going further.

“Why do we have the Department of Education?” asked Savilla, a Putnam County Republican and substitute teacher. “Why can’t we eliminate it and return the power to the county level?”

Though it recommends shifting control and funding from its department to the counties, the board’s response also urges a revisiting of the 55-county structure. Calling it the “the third rail of educational politics,” the response cites how 28 counties have fewer than 4,000 students and 14 of those have less than half that.

“In fairness, and in the spirit of providing an ‘efficient system of schools,’ the inefficiencies of replicating services 55 times in West Virginia must be addressed,” the response said.

Lawmakers expect to revisit the board’s audit response at its December interim study meetings. They did not appear to mention or quiz Linger about Marple’s firing Tuesday. Concerned about whether it followed the state open meeting’s law by taking up the firing question on Nov. 15, the board is scheduled to return to the topic at a Thursday meeting.

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