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Community members discuss education audit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There were colored markers, there were white drawing boards, there were the usual education officials and there was a pre-recorded video from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin talking about the importance of education.

That was the backdrop for a community forum in Charleston Thursday night focused on how to fix education in West Virginia.

About 50 community members from around the Charleston area attended the fourth of a series of statewide forums at the West Virginia Culture Center to discuss a comprehensive independent education efficiency audit released by the governor in January.

The education efficiency audit, conducted by Public Works LLC at a cost of $750,000 to the state, found that West Virginia's education system is saddled with restrictive regulations and too much bureaucracy and advocated for a series of big fixes to make the system more efficient.

Thursday night's forum, sponsored by nonprofit advocacy group Vision Shared, was supposed to be a chance for the general public to provide feedback about the specifics of the sweeping Education Audit.

"We really just want to raise more awareness about some of the recommendations and discuss how we can move forward on improving student achievement," said Rebecca Randolph, president and CEO of Vision Shared.

But much of the discussion Thursday night devolved more into clarifications about the audit's findings rather than actual back and forth about core recommendations.

No members of Public Works LLC attended the forum, so Vision Shared members provided hard copy handouts of the recommendations to those with questions about specifics in the audit. 

Don Scalise, a social studies teacher at Cabell Midland High School, said he liked the concept of the community forums, but didn't learn anything new. He said he wished there had been more teachers present to balance out the discussion. 

"Everyone here has some sort of vested interest in the education system," Scalise said. "But it was interesting to hear what everyone had to say."

The event kicked off with Tomblin, who did not attend the forum in Charleston, in a video highlighting the importance of soliciting community feedback on the audit. Representatives from Vision Shared then gave a brief overview of the audit's core recommendations and then allowed participants to break out into small sections to discuss leadership and classroom teaching, technology in schools, and career development.

During the breakout sessions, Vision Shared representatives put key recommendations on white drawing boards and asked participants to discuss the recommendations and give each a thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or in-between assessment for quality.

People within the school system dominated much of the discussion in the breakout session on improving school leadership.

Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, was an active participant in discussing issues of tenure, teacher evaluations and the role of principals -- all core issues highlighted in the audit. Most of the community members listened as just a few participants asked clarifying questions about the audit.

William Simmons, a former chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, said he thought the discussion was interesting, but said the problems in the audit were so complex that it was difficult to discuss them in detail in just a 90-minute period.

"This is such an important topic, and I hope it will lead to improvement," Simmons said. "But I applaud that we're talking about it."

Tomblin will wait until after Vision Shared releases a report of the community forums in the upcoming months before he officially responds to the audit, said Hallie Mason, director of public policy for the governor. She declined to say whether that official response would be released before or after the election. 

The West Virginia Department of Education also said it would wait until the last of the community forums before it released its official response to the audit.

The Vision Shared community forums cost about $64,500. The governor's office provided Vision Shared with a grant worth $42,500 to staff and host the events and Vision Shared and other private entities chipped in the remainder. Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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