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Superintendent says local initiatives taking top priority

As he speaks with teachers and administrators across West Virginia and looks at recent measures of student achievement, State Superintendent Jim Phares finds everyone on the same page.

"There is one basic common theme that is running throughout the state. The return on our investment in education is a cause for concern for all of us," Phares said.

Phares spoke Tuesday to state lawmakers about his views on the state of public education in West Virginia. He said he didn't want to sugarcoat it: student scores in math and science hover around the bottom nationally, while public spending per pupil remains near the top.

Change was the theme of Phares' message on Tuesday, as it has been since he came on as superintendent last month.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, legislators and education officials across the state all have touted the recommendations of an education efficiency audit released in January 2012. 

For months, there have been public forums, official responses and debates over priorities.

The audit recommendations mentioned most often include addressing the top-heavy nature of the Department of Education and shifting control from the state to county school systems.

Phares told legislators both are top priorities for the state Board of Education and his department as the Legislature prepares to convene its annual 60-day session today. 

"We are committed to removing layers of bureaucracy and barriers to new local initiatives," Phares said.

In the months following the audit's release, then-Superintendent Jorea Marple said the department was trimming its staff through attrition. The board and department pointed to more than 30 unfilled positions, which the department said would save more than $1 million a year.

In early January, Phares was given a chance to look at the department's budget recommendations for the upcoming year. He left in most of the $8 million in cuts suggested during Marple's time with the department, and emphasized the department was committed to cutting positions.

The department would shift 16 positions to the Regional Education Service Agencies, commonly referred to as RESAs, Phares also said at the time.

He elaborated Tuesday: all 16 positions were unfilled at the department and were among the number cited as evidence of downsizing. Phares clarified that point in response to a question from Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson.

The cost of salaries and benefits for those positions will be $1.6 million a year.

The department is saving $1.1 million by not filling the remaining 12 positions, department spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro confirmed.

"But repurposing is not just about downsizing. It's also about changing the culture," Phares told lawmakers Tuesday.

The 16 positions to be shifted will be filled by employees who will coordinate professional development for the RESAs, Cordeiro said. This was a key recommendation in the audit.

Phares previously has spoken about moving the training to the regional agencies but Tuesday said he wanted to incorporate a partnership with the Center for Professional Development into that training.

Judy Hale, head of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, has consistently said teachers would prefer professional development from the center. Phares' comments made her a little more optimistic about RESA training, but she still maintains the move merely shifts bureaucracy rather than eliminating it.

Phares is optimistic the move will provide a little more flexibility in each area being able to come up with the programming that is right for them. It's part of a support structure the department wants to provide for teachers and administrators, who far too often take the brunt of the blame when people ask questions about student achievement.

While Phares pointed to outside factors - poverty, drug addiction, abuse - that can affect a child's ability to learn, Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, said teacher bashing and holding teachers accountable are two different things.

"So many of our children are poor. So many of our children come to school hungry," Wells said. "We realize that. But let's not use that necessarily as an excuse to cover up all of the other problems we are facing."

Phares acknowledged that changes are needed and promised to continue pursuing a different approach regardless of the legislative session outcome.

Phares, Wells and others expressed the belief that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will push education reform this session. He will deliver his State of the State address at 7 p.m. today.

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


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