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While goal same, educators differ on approach

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Improvements in student achievement and offering great teachers in every West Virginia classroom are goals education community members continue to champion.

But the best way to arrive at those goals remains contested, as evidenced Tuesday night during a discussion of the statewide education efficiency audit.

The massive report recommends more than 50 measures that could save the state millions of dollars while improving efficiency in schools statewide. Since its release last January, there has been little official action regarding the audit. Discussion, however, has increased as the 2013 legislative session draws near.

Several teacher and school employee unions spoke last month to the legislative committee discussing the audit. One returned Tuesday to provide more information, while organizations that represent school boards, county administrators and increasing student achievement gave their opinions.

The organizations tended to favor portions of the audit response that benefited their membership and oppose those that did not.

The West Virginia School Board Association supported giving more control of the system to local county boards. The audit states there is too much bureaucracy in the system, something Greg Prudich, association member and president of the Mercer County Board of Education, called "regulation strangulation" during his comments to the committee.

Over the next five years, the association wants to see more administrative powers returned to the county level. This puts the onus on local school systems to succeed, but Prudich said that's a welcomed challenge.

"Importantly, we realize that we will be held responsible for achieving the two chief educational system goals noted in the audit, namely to produce the best possible outcome for students and to receive the highest return on the educational dollars spent on public education," Prudich said.

It's one of five goals outlined by the association. The association also calls for greater emphasis on vocational training, better teacher pay, county discretion in creating the school calendar and a revitalization of the Regional Educational Service Agencies.

The goals are similar to those suggested by others during the meeting. Rick Hicks, executive director of the West Virginia Association of School Administrators, agreed with the idea of more local control and increasing RESA's ability to help local boards.

His notion of how to return control to the local level was not in line with that of Dale Lee, president of the teachers union known as the West Virginia Education Association.

In returning more control to local schools, Hicks argued principals would have better control over their schools. Staffing and school structure laws make it tough for a principal to do the best job, he said, adding that there are similar problems for county superintendents.

"The administrators, teachers and staff in each county are well-educated and extremely professional," Hicks said. "They have the ability to determine what is best for their districts and students."

In Lee's view, that would mean changing hiring practices and the giving too much power to a school principal. That makes teachers nervous, Lee said, citing information received during forums concerning the audit.

The WVEA recently coordinated seven forums throughout the state. Of the 312 participants, 250 completed exit surveys, according to the forum report. More than 80 percent who did complete the surveys were teachers.

Lee said the surveys showed many teachers do not support giving more power to the principals when it comes to hiring decisions. Responses to the other aspects of the audit discussed during the forum - teacher pay, recruitment and retention and teacher evaluations, for example - generally fell in line with the WVEA's stance on the topic.

Lee's comments sparked debate with several legislators. The discussion took up a lion's share of the meeting, and legislators hinted at similar discussion once the legislative session starts in February.

Pat Kusimo, president of the nonprofit Education Alliance, asked legislators to look at portions of the audit that can impact student outcomes.

Factors outside the classroom can affect students greatly, and it's important these are not ignored in any recommendations, she argued.

For example, she thinks 180 instructional days should be a minimum for all school systems. At-risk students generally don't have the same access to technology or support system that lends itself to effective education outside the classroom, she said. Spending more time in school would benefit these students academically and ensure many get the meals upon which they have come to depend.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the audit, and no action regarding the audit was taken. Changes in the form of new laws are expected to be presented during the upcoming legislative session.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and many legislators have pledged that education is the top priority heading into the session.

Reach Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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