A sweeping review of West Virginia’s public schools released Friday offers scores of recommendations that its authors say can improve lagging student performance and save about $70 million a year statewide.

From a voluntary merit pay system for teachers and reduced workloads for new educators, to seizing on distance-learning technology and penalizing counties that fail to provide at least 180 days of instruction annually, the audit scrutinizes the state’s education system from practically every angle.

“The main thrust of this review is to make the West Virginia educational system more efficient, from top to bottom, so that tax dollars can be better spent educating our children,” the report from the consulting firms Public Works LLC and MGT said.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin commissioned the review last year. With a $275,000 price tag, it focused on relevant state-level departments as well as one of the state’s eight regional education service agencies and the Harrison, Taylor and Wyoming county school systems.

“From the classroom to the state school board, this assessment shows us we have room for improvement,” Tomblin said in a statement. “For the future of our children and our state, we must (build) a better learning and teaching environment in our classrooms and reduce administrative redundancies thereby directing financial savings back into the classroom.”

The review concluded that West Virginia has perhaps the most tightly regulated education system in the country. State laws control many details of school operations, allowing for little flexibility, the review found. The state Department of Education, while led by a board whose members are appointed by the governor, is independent of both the executive and legislative branches under the West Virginia Constitution.

“We have encountered no other state that insulates its education system so much from gubernatorial — or voter — control; restricts local initiative so much on the part of districts, building principals, and teachers; and vests so much authority for education at the state level,” Friday’s report said.

While that may be the choice of the state’s citizens, the report continues, “it runs counter to most of the concern and thinking in educational reform today that individual initiative and accountability should be encouraged, while responsibility for education must ultimately come to a single point at the top of the pyramid.”

The audit also ranked West Virginia second for the number of state-level staff when compared to student populations. Even when narrowing the focus to states with similar student populations or rural terrain, the state had among the lowest ratios of bureaucrats to students.

“In recent years, (the Department of Education) in fact has demonstrated an ability modestly to reduce overall departmental staffing levels through attrition,” the report said. “At the very same time, however, it has increased its number of high-level positions.”

Around 60 of the review’s recommendations would trim and reorganize that bureaucracy. While calling for fewer department employees, it also recommends hiring architects and engineers to replace contractors. The department should absorb the training-oriented Center for Professional Development, which is now independent, but shed the Cedar Lakes Conference Center, the report said.

Another 73 recommendations focus on teachers, principals and school coursework. These include requiring a reduced workload for new teachers, and low-cost loans for those who agree to live and work in the more rural communities for five years. They also propose special pay to retain teachers or keep them in high-need schools and subject areas. The state should also offer higher salaries to teachers who agree to merit-based pay, the report said.

Such proposals have proved thorny, as has enforcing a 180-day school calendar. While West Virginia sets that as the goal, it does not mandate that minimum. But 29 states do, and 11 states require more than 180 days, the report said. Japan, meanwhile, sets a 240-day school year and the calendars in Europe call for between 190 and 210 days, the report said.

No West Virginia school offered 180 days of instruction during the 2009-2010 year, the review found. Of the 55 counties, 27 reached only 169 days or less. One unnamed county had its schools open for just 160 days.

The review said the state should abolish the calendar’s 43-week limit, reduce the number of staff support days and “provide consequences to districts for not meeting the 180-day minimum.”

But the report also noted that “time in school alone, however, will not improve student outcomes. What matters most is quality, instructional time.”

West Virginia spent $3.5 billion on primary and secondary education during the 2010 budget year, the report said. By some measures, it ranks in the Top 10 among states for per-pupil spending, the report said. But it also notes that when payments aimed at a teacher pension shortfall aren’t counted, it ranks 32nd.

The review proposes keeping but focusing and streamlining the eight regional education service agencies, or RESAs. Besides 24 recommendations for county school systems, it offers 12 specific proposals for Wyoming County schools and at least two dozen apiece for Harrison and Taylor counties. These include eliminating an in-house print shop and creating new bus routes. All three counties are advised to increase the prices of at least their school lunches.

A number of the report’s recommendations offer that level of details. It said at least 35 counties can save $4.4 million over five years, for instance, if they stop paying bus drivers extra for midday runs. It also cites the practices of other states, such as Oklahoma, which recently adopted policies targeting ineffective teachers for firing.

MGT handled the RESA and county reviews, and also sought to survey all 55 county systems. While 47 took part, eight did not: Clay, Doddridge, Greenbrier, Hampshire, Hancock, Monroe, Ritchie and Roane counties. Of those eight, one declined and two did not respond. The others responded too late, did not send needed information or took part only in the survey’s online forum component, the report said.

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