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.