The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 24, 2013

Questions about W.Va. education bureaucracy linger

CHARLESTON — Bureaucracy emerged as a major culprit in a wide-ranging audit of West Virginia’s education system, but the legislation passed last week at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin focuses mostly on other targets.

Approved Friday by the House, Tomblin’s proposal tackles another big audit topic: inflexible school policies. The plan rewrites laws on educator hiring and transfers, and frees up counties to plan calendars that provide 180 days of student instruction.

But several lawmakers questioned whether the legislation preserves a system that deprives classrooms of needed funding by keeping money at the state level. House Republicans tried without success to deepen cuts to the state Department of Education, with one of the five failed GOP amendments in advance of Friday’s vote.

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead challenged the bill’s focus while citing the audit’s findings. Calling for more resources devoted to schools and county districts, the study found that only Alaska had more state-level education employees when measured against students.

“What screams out of this audit, in almost every page, is that we are spending most of our resources, most of our energy, most of our effort in our educational system too far at the top,” said Armstead, a Kanawha County Republican. “We have an extremely top-heavy system.”

Released in early 2012, the audit report counted one state department staffer for every 419 students. Compared with its five neighbors, West Virginia has four times to 11 times as many state-level employees when measured against student populations. Even after excluding department staff assigned to correctional facilities and such settings as the Schools for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, West Virginia would still rank in the Top 10 for state-level employees, the report said.

“We need to shift the focus from Charleston to the local level and reduce the number of bureaucrats that control our educational system,” Armstead argued during Thursday’s amendment debate.

While Armstead’s proposal was rejected 44-52 — nearly along party lines — the vote was the closest among the five of the GOP amendments. Among other arguments, the majority Democrats cited how the Senate Education Committee had added mandatory cuts in the bill. The department must trim personnel spending by 5 percent during each of the next two budget years. Department officials estimate that will shave $2 million off its annual budget by the second year. They noted that the personnel cuts exempt classroom positions but do apply to the practice of hiring recently retired educators as temporary contract employees, offering another way to reduce staff.

The department had begun heeding the audit’s call to cut its ranks in advance of Tomblin’s ongoing push to improve public schools. Before her abrupt November firing as state schools superintendent, Jorea Marple had identified 30 vacant positions, which then remained unfilled unless deemed critical. The Board of Education’s response to the audit estimated that this step would reduce annual spending by $1.2 million.

The board also has continued another process begun under Marple, to reorganize department offices and programs around goals instead of whether their funding comes from federal, state or other sources. That has allowed the department to consolidate several upper-level jobs, the board’s audit response said.

But the board was criticized by some lawmakers earlier this month when it voted to create a new executive post, director of operations, at an annual salary of $104,000. During the Senate’s review of Tomblin’s bill, state schools Superintendent James Phares explained that this new administrator will act as a go-between for the board and the department.

“So you need a liaison between the two?” asked Senate Majority John Unger, D-Berkeley. “I thought you were the liaison.”

Critics of the department’s size also have questioned the decision by Tomblin and the board to shift some of its duties to the Regional Educational Resource Agencies. President Judy Hale of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia is among those who consider these regional agencies another layer of bureaucracy.

Left largely unmentioned this session, meanwhile, is local-level bureaucracy. The board noted in its December response to the audit that of the 55 county school systems, 28 have fewer than 4,000 students. Of those, 14 have half that number and four are at or below 1,000 students.

“The system of 55 local county boards of education and all the associated administration has been the third rail of educational politics, but the Board has determined that a meaningful dialogue surrounding this issue must occur,” the audit response said.

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