The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 26, 2012

W.Va. legislators to take up audit of public schools

By Lawrence Messina
The Associated Press

CHARLESTON — West Virginia lawmakers should expect to dive into the recent wide-ranging audit of the state’s public schools during their upcoming session, but it’s not yet clear which recommendations from the 151-page report might make the legislative agenda.

A loan-forgiveness program for teachers in hard-to-fill subject areas or underserved parts of the state was among the proposals discussed during a series of public forums this summer. Vision Shared, the public-private economic development effort, hosted the eight forums around the state with the help of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

“Most everyone would agree that would be a benefit to improving those school environments and attracting and attaining quality educators,” Vision Shared President and Chief Executive Rebecca Randolph said of the loan-forgiveness recommendation.

The forums focused on what happens in the classroom as well as on the teachers and administrators in individual schools. Randolph estimated that turnout averaged 45 people and included parents, business and community leaders, and lawmakers. Vision Shared expects to present a final report this fall on what the forums yielded.

The state Board of Education and Superintendent Jorea Marple, meanwhile, have begun acting on several audit recommendations, spokeswo-man Liza Cordeiro said. The department is looking at software to plan bus routes for all 55 counties, for instance, after the audit report linked computer-aided routing to lower transportation costs but found that all but nine counties map their bus routes manually.

Cedar Lakes Conference Center hosted hundreds of students this summer for science and Spanish immersion camps, Cordeiro said, after the audit questioned whether the Jackson County facility might get more use if assigned to a different state agency. Cordeiro said the department has also revised purchasing policies and regrouped offices around goals instead of funding sources in the audit’s wake.

Conducted by the consulting firms Public Works LLC and MGT, the audit concluded that West Virginia has perhaps the most tightly regulated education system in the country. It describes public schools rigidly controlled by state law and overseen by a department heavy with bureaucracy and largely insulated from voters or other public officials. The audit’s report, issued in early January, listed more than 100 recommendations to improve lagging student performance while saving an estimated $70 million annually.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin commissioned the audit, and he included two of its proposals in his agenda for the legislative session that began shortly after the report’s release. One gives more flexibility to McDowell County to act on audit findings, as part of a five-year program aimed at rescuing its struggling schools and ailing communities. The other created a statewide program for evaluating both teachers and principals more regularly than previous policy allowed. Cordeiro said the gradually unfolding program will reach 136 schools to varying degrees during the just-begun academic year.

Tomblin awaits the Vision Shared report and a response to the audit from the Board of Education, which recently began an outside review of its findings, said Hallie Mason, the governor’s public policy director. Mason said Tomblin expects groups representing teachers, administrators and school workers to weigh in as well.

“The governor took the report very seriously,” Mason said. “We have no intention to have this collect dust on a shelf.”

But the governor’s office is up for election this year. Legislators can also expect action on the audit if Republican nominee Bill Maloney prevails in November. The Morgantown drilling consultant and business owner narrowly lost to Tomblin in last year’s special election to complete an unexpired term. Maloney faults Tomblin, who was previously a longtime legislator and Senate president, for the state’s mixed-to-poor showing in national rankings for student achievement.

“The recent education audit raised some valid concerns about how we educate our children,” Maloney said in a statement. “We should begin to implement the audit, reform our education system, and ensure that the savings are used in the classroom to better educate our students.”