CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A divided state Board of Education was able to agree Wednesday on its much-anticipated response to an audit of West Virginia's education system.
In the response, board members say they support schools implementing a year-round school calendar, but they want to monitor the current teacher evaluation system and generally keep their current relationship with the state School Building Authority.
Board members, who have been at odds over the sudden firing of Superintendent Jorea Marple in recent days, unanimously approved the response after lengthy discussions Wednesday.
The 131-page draft document is in response to an audit released in January by nonprofit Public Works. The audit — sought by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin at a cost of $750,000 — included more than 100 recommendations that could save the state school system money while helping it operate more efficiently.
The audit discusses the potential for close to $20 million in savings after one year and $115 million after five years at the state level. Additional savings at the county level could equate to roughly $90 million annually.
The board's response questions the amount of those savings, stating Public Works did not take into account the cost of implementing some of its recommendations. And savings should not be the end goal of the changes, the board argues.
Board President Wade Linger said the board and public should be wary about estimated savings.
"It's not all that easy to go through here . . . then to actually go back and find where they, the auditors, thought that money was going to come from is not so easy. And it's not because we didn't try," Linger said.
He and the rest of the board met Wednesday to discuss and ultimately approve the report. Although Linger had anticipated a quick discussion, board member Priscilla Haden came to the meeting with pages of handwritten notes.
Initially Haden recommended rescheduling the meeting for next week to give the public time to read the draft response and ask questions. Board member Mike Green said the public expected the board not to delay its response. Other board members made similar statements.
Haden rescinded the motion, but Linger took offense to comments she made about the board's lack of transparency.
Tension was obvious between Linger and Haden early in the meeting. This week Haden called actions by Linger and other board members in relation to Marple's firing "orchestrated."
Linger said everyone on the board had the draft audit response for five days, and he asked everyone to submit questions or comments by Monday. He did not receive comments from Haden, so he questioned her claims about transparency.
After a little back-and-forth between the two — including Linger saying the board wasn't going to go through its response page by page — the meeting settled into a rhythm: Haden would refer to something in the audit and the board would discuss it.
During one of the meeting's two breaks, Linger said he hadn't anticipated such in-depth discussion but thought it actually helped everyone to better understand the report.
The board supports most of the audit recommendations, but with qualifications. Some recommendations would require changes in state law or reallocation of federal funds, actions outside the board's control.
There are actions the board can take, and its response also makes many recommendations for actions by the Legislature or other affected parties.
In response to an audit recommendation that the department mandate 180 days of instruction by county school systems, the board instead states that it supports a shift away from the traditional school calendar.
"Why should our school calendar be based on an agrarian model? With hundreds of millions of dollars of new school buildings constructed over the past few years, why should they sit empty and idle for months in a year?" the report states.
Instead, the board recommends schools move to a "balanced" or year-round calendar.
Already in place at four West Virginia schools, the calendar incorporates a shorter summer break and several three-week breaks throughout the year.