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School officials seek agency changes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The state school board, county school systems, teachers unions and leaders of Regional Educational Service Agencies all have their own opinions on changes needed for the service agencies.

All parties agree changes are needed, though.

"We either need to do it right or abolish them and find another way," Wade Linger, president of the state Board of Education, said Friday.

"But it makes no sense to continue down this path of having this thing out there we don't properly support and therefore they can't fully complete their mission, and we wonder why they can't get it done," he said.

Eyes turned to the agencies after a statewide audit of the education system called for changes in their structure and supervision.

Created in 1972, the agencies' duties are laid out in code: provide technical assistance for low performing schools; provide staff development; encourage cooperative purchasing agreements between counties; install and maintain technology at the county level; pursue federal grants; and conduct other services as determined by state law or the board.

The code is clear, but it's the execution of those duties that leaves county school boards confused, said Howard O'Cull, executive director of the state School Board Association.

The agencies are under the control of the board, but the board has relied on the state Department of Education for supervising and directing the agencies, Linger and O'Cull said. Both think it's important for the agencies to have flexibility in deciding what their member counties need, but O'Cull thinks a stratified mission clearly defined by the board would make his members more comfortable.

"I think the main concern that board members have is that unless the RESA are more focused on meeting the needs of county boards, particularly in the small struggling counties, to shift more responsibilities to them doesn't really help counties out at all," O'Cull said Friday.

The agencies are not meeting county needs adequately right now, O'Cull said. Others in the state, including Judy Hale, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, have also questioned the effectiveness of the services the agencies provide.

Hale pointed to professional development in particular, but O'Cull said his members think in many cases it would be easy to work between counties without going through the agency.

Nick Zervos, head of RESA 6, thinks people don't understand the role of the agencies. In his region - which includes Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties - personnel help with Medicaid billing, repairing computers and competitive purchasing. There are agency-employed specialists - Sign Language interpreters, for example - who float from county to county within a region, he said. The agency also provides science supplies for local schools.

He said teachers in his area say the professional development is "rated really high." The agency also trains firefighters and emergency service personnel.

"What I'm telling you is we're a safety net that's really interwoven throughout those schools and those counties," Zervos said in a recent phone interview. "You can't do that at the state level."

Counties contribute money to the agencies, which Zervos said makes the agencies more accountable to local school systems than the state in many circumstances. More attention from the board and other state-level stakeholders could signal a shift for interactions between the agencies and the board, Zervos said.

"I think the state board has said they need to work with us more. The current members of the board know that we're a vehicle to drive their agenda," Zervos said. "They've set a high standard for themselves."

O'Cull and Linger agree. At the same time, O'Cull thinks some of those services might have distracted the agencies from their original missions: helping students.

It all comes back to funding. As an official board entity, the agencies receive money that's allocated by the state. Those allocations were capped: Linger said he thought the statewide cap set the funding level at about $4 million. The most recent figures he had seen put the total combined budget for all of the agencies closer to $60 million.

Zervos said the cap was the single biggest hindrance to the agencies completing their goals. O'Cull said the search for more funds alters those objectives.

"I think it's really the distractions, chasing after the entrepreneurial dollars or grants," O'Cull said, citing one reason county boards aren't satisfied with the agencies. "That means the RESA have such various and far flung missions, or agendas."

Linger didn't want to commit to the legislature increasing funding, but he agreed the agencies are forced to spend too much time searching for funds. That's where the effectiveness of the agency hinges, in his opinion. Perhaps the agencies have underperformed in the past, but that's probably because they didn't have the staff or funding they needed, he believes.

Linger, who restores classic cars in his spare time, used an automobile analogy to explain.

"If you're expected to perform like a V-8 and you're running on five cylinders, you're probably not going to look too good," Linger said.  

It's hard to gauge what "success" means for each agency: The counties have their own needs, which means the goals and duties for each agency vary, according to the audit. That leads to vastly different staffing numbers and duties.

For example, Zervos' agency funded a total of 53.5 positions for the 2011-12 school year. In RESA 8 - which covers the eastern panhandle - there were 127.5 positions funded. (Fractions represent part-time employees). O'Cull provided the data, which are mirrored in the audit.

There's no direct correlation between the number of staff in an agency and the number of schools or students in those regions, according to the audit.

That's both the beauty and crux of the system, officials said. It moves away from a "one size fits all approach" in Linger's opinion, but O'Cull thinks it can confuse counties on separation of duties. Both agree it's up to the board to provide more direction in that category.

The board hasn't asserted its power to actually control the agencies until recently - Linger said that's because the board lacks any staff members who could monitor the agencies on a consistent basis.

"I think there's pieces out there that some RESA need that and others don't, and the board needs to get more engaged on a day-to-day basis to know where and when that needs to happen," Linger said. "I think that having a staff person dealing with this on a day-to-day basis will be a great asset."

The board should clearly define what it expects of the agencies before bringing any reform ideas to the legislature, O'Cull said.

That may take a while. In fact, he thinks the board should wait on any proposed changes until the 2014 Legislative session.

Linger is ready to discuss the agencies now. The board is prepared to move in a different direction if proposed changes are not effective. But it can't afford to maintain its current relationship with the agencies, in his opinion.

New state superintendent of schools Jim Phares has repeatedly said he plans to shift more personnel and responsibilities to the agencies in the coming months.

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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