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State schools eyeing cross-district administration

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's hefty education reform package comes a move to streamline the bureaucracy among West Virginia's school districts - especially in its smallest and most vulnerable counties.

Tomblin is spearheading the ambitious agenda, but it lies outside the purview of his legislative package on education reform - in a separate piece of legislation and a new commission being formed by the state school board.

West Virginia has 55 separate school districts, one for each county. Most are rural; eight have fewer than 1,400 students.

Many have only a handful of employees - the smallest counties have as few as four people working in their central office - but officials think those school systems could be more efficient if they reached across district lines for administrative services.

In small districts, each employee usually does a number of jobs. Wirt County, one of the state's smallest districts with just over 1,000 students in three schools and fewer than four employees in its central office, is a prime example. For years, the chief financial officer was also in charge of child nutrition. Another employee was in charge of staff development but also federal programs and special education.

"We carry a lot of hats, so we consider ourselves to be pretty efficient," Superintendent Dan Metz said.

But a few years ago, administrators went looking for a food services director and stumbled into an arrangement with a neighboring school district, Pleasants County Schools.

The new food services employee works part-time for each county, traveling between the two. Menus for each day's meals are the same in each county.

"He came on board during the time when we were just starting to look at nutrition values and portion size," Metz said, all things his overburdened financial officer was inexperienced in. "It was just a lifesaver."

The idea is to take that principle and apply it to all of the state's counties, especially the most rural ones. That strategy is being manifested in two ways: through legislation and through a newly formed "Commission on Small School Systems" that will review the governance structure of county boards of education.

Tomblin asked the state Board of Education to use its own authority to appoint members to the commission. The board is currently working on those appointments and is expected to vote on appointees at its regular meeting next month.

A bill that would require meetings among county boards of education and their regional education agencies was introduced in the state Senate last week.

The measures are meant to help the state's most fragile school districts - those that have seen the greatest drops in enrollment.     

Most of West Virginia's school districts have seen steady enrollment declines over the last 20 years. Increasing enrollment in the state's universal preschool program has helped boost the student population over the last decade, but enrollment in that program is expected to level off in the next few years. All but eight counties are facing projected declines in the population of school-age people over the next several years. Eight are expected to see a decline of 15 percent or more.

And in the education community, it's often said that a decline in enrollment is often just the first domino to fall in a series - if personnel levels aren't soon shrunk to match enrollment, financial woes soon follow, and academic achievement plummets.

But those counties aren't necessarily the same as the counties that have consistently low enrollment: Wirt County is small but has always been small - and the bureaucracy correspondingly small.

"We consider ourselves to be very lean," Metz said.   

He cautioned that his school district didn't save money by sharing services with a neighboring county - personnel costs actually increased with that shift.

"Because before, my financial person was doing that, so we actually took on another half-time employee to do that," he said.

Christine Campbell is the president-elect of the state branch of the American Federation of Teachers and a teacher in Pocahontas County, the state's most sparsely populated county. The school district has about 1,400 students, and the central office has four employees - a setup that is already more efficient than those in many other counties, she said.

"And you could combine Pocahontas County and, say, Webster County, and they look close on the map," she said. Pocahontas itself has schools more than an hour apart.

"So if you have administrators who need to go out to those schools, they can't physically do that."

Howard O'Cull, executive director of the state School Board Association, expects technology to play at least some role in countering that problem. And he emphasizes that no one is entertaining the idea of eliminating local school districts altogether for this very reason.

"The best government is often that which is closest to the people," he said, referring to remarks the governor made last week.

"So you can remove services and do it with technology and alternative arrangements, but you still need that touchstone with the people. You don't want to have to drive 90 minutes to do that."    

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.



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