The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 18, 2013

Schools focus puts West Virginia education agencies in spotlight

CHARLESTON — A network of West Virginia educational offices with a rocky history may play a major role in the ongoing push to improve the state’s public schools.

The Legislature created the Regional Education Service Agencies, or RESAs, in 1972. The eight offices were assigned to help the counties in their districts apply for grants and pool their purchasing power. Their duties also have included training staff and keeping computers running.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is looking to the RESAs as he follows through on an audit that found West Virginia’s public schools stymied by state-level bureaucracy amid struggling student performance. He highlighted their potential usefulness in a Wednesday letter to the state Board of Education.

“Since the creation of the RESAs, their role in the system of public education has grown, but that role has not been well defined over time,” Tomblin wrote.

The governor cited how the board already had concluded that the RESAs could help find more ways to streamline operations among the counties they serve. The board also wants to tap the agencies “to decentralize the delivery of services to our schools, moving away from a top-down method of State delivery to a system that is more local and regional,” Tomblin noted.

When it responded to the wide-ranging audit last year, the board had endorsed RESAs as a vehicle for carrying out its reform recommendations. The board still holds that view, it told Tomblin in a Thursday letter pledging support for his education proposals. His agenda includes training elementary school teachers to ensure third-graders finish the year reading at grade level — a key goal announced in last week’s State of the State address — and personalizing learning by connecting students with technology.

State Schools Superintendent Jim Phares, hired by the board late last year, also touted RESAs to the House and Senate education committees on the eve of the 60-day legislative session that began Wednesday. Phares called the agencies “essential to our reform plans.”

The renewed emphasis marks a major turnaround for the RESAs. Lawmakers have previously weighed abolishing the agencies, questioning their usefulness and whether their funding might be better spent elsewhere. The Legislature recently scrutinized RESAs by commissioning a 2006 study after an apparent lack of oversight allowed the finance secretary for the agency serving six southeastern counties to embezzle more than $1.3 million. That review recommended 27 ways to overhaul and improve the RESA network.

Then-Gov. Joe Manchin, meanwhile, considered erasing the agencies’ funding from general tax revenues in 2005, arguing that they needed to make money from the services they provided. Tomblin has proposed $3.6 million in such funding for RESAs in his 2013-2014 state spending plan, a slight decline from the $3.9 million in the current budget.

Together, the RESAs have about 465 full-time employees this school year, according to Department of Education figures. One in four is a teacher; nearly as many are administrations. The agencies also have more than 100 support staffers, mostly teachers’ aides and secretaries, and more than 80 listed as computer or electronic technicians

This session, House Republicans have pledged to shift as much control back to the 55 county school systems as possible. House Minority Leader Tim Armstead said that while GOP lawmakers await details from Tomblin’s proposals, they don’t necessarily agree with transferring resources from the state-level department to a midlevel bureaucracy.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia is among the critics of enlisting the RESAs to improve public schools as called for in response to the audit.

“The RESAS are already an added bureaucracy that takes money away from the classroom,” AFT-WV president Judy Hale said after Tomblin’s State of the State address Wednesday. “This is simply going to increase that bureaucracy. I do not think that is a structure that will work.”

Hale singled out Tomblin’s push to ensure that teachers can pursue professional development within their counties and not have to travel to Charleston for such training. While supportive of that goal, she questions the proposal to offer that development through the regional agencies.

“Professional development needs to go back to the local level, but I want to see the details on how we’re going to do that using RESAs.”

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