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.