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Document details BOE's response to efficiency audit

Read the BOE's full response  here.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was March, and Wade Linger and the other eight members of the state Board of Education decided to tackle the $750,000 elephant in the room.

Holed up at the Stonewall Resort in Lewis County, the full state board buckled down to respond to a sweeping audit of West Virginia's public education system released by the governor in January.

Over the course of two days, the board drafted a 41-page, point-by-point response to the audit, conducted by Pennsylvania-based consulting firm Public Works LLC.

The audit said West Virginia had one of the most highly regulated education systems in the country and recommended a series of major educational changes -- from what it called right-sizing the Department of Education to implementing energy savings in schools that would save millions. If fully implemented, the audit said West Virginia could save $90 million a year on its education system. 

At the Stonewall retreat in March, board members detailed which of the dozens of recommendations they liked, whether the reforms required changing state code, and laid out a blueprint for how to make each of the recommendations happen.

At the two-day retreat, which cost taxpayers more than $7,670 in lodging and other expenses, the board drafted a definitive document that at least partially laid out the board's plan of action in response to the audit.  

On Tuesday, the Gazette obtained the board's full response and discussion of the education audit from the Stonewall retreat, which paints the most complete picture to date about how the board plans to address the voluminous audit.

Among the board's responses:

  • They agreed that it was a good idea to reorganize the state Department of Education around major education goals, not funding streams. 
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  • They agreed there should be a statute change to allow Teach for America, an AmeriCorps-type teaching program for recent college graduates, to operate in West Virginia.
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  • They planned to consider a proposal to change hiring practices to fill staff vacancies with the most qualified person regardless of seniority in the district.
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  • They agreed to create a rural homesteading program that would arrange low-cost loans for new teachers who agreed to live and work in a rural community for five years.
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  • And they liked a plan to purchase one bus-routing system for all of the state to save taxpayers millions.
  • There was just one major catch.

    Despite going through the audit's 100-plus recommendations on everything from revamping purchasing policies to new strategies to retain teachers, racking up $6,000 in hotel room costs at the Stonewall Resort and paying board members $1,600 for their time, the Department of Education never released the full-fledged response they drafted, despite public and political clamoring for a response.

    Now, nearly 10 months since the audit was released, the board's foot-dragging has gotten to the point that lawmakers gave the state school board a November deadline to respond to the audit.

    "We're setting a November date for them to be here, and we expect a response," Sen. Gregory Tucker, D-Nicholas, told the Gazette in early September. "The audit is one of the most important education issues we're going to take up. That gives them ... months."

    But board president Wade Linger said he doesn't know if that timetable is feasible.

    "I've said over and over again, the most important thing is to do it right, and myself and the board both want it done as quickly as we possibly can," Linger said earlier this month. "But if I have to pick between rushing it and not feeling good about the response, then I'll choose writing the better response."

    The Stonewall retreat document is the board's response, said Linger, but he needs to go through the notes and convert them from bullets to "a flowing document" before releasing them to the public. In fact, the board hired a staffer, Donna Peduto, last month to assist with the audit response and is paying her $350 a day to reflow the report.

    "We want to make it good, and I'm anxious to get it done, but it's not just me. The whole board has to be happy with it before it gets released," Linger said in an earlier interview.

    Linger said he needed to revisit his notes from the Stonewall retreat to cross-reference them with his own opinions, run them past the department, make a presentation to the board and then get the members' approval.

    "What I have to get is an actual flowing document, not just a bunch of bullets," he said.

    Within the board of education's 41-page document, the full draft of which is available on the Gazette's website, the board tackles a majority of the audit's key findings.

    They go through many of the audit's 73 recommendations related to teachers, principals and coursework, saying they support reducing workloads for new teachers. They disagreed with the recommendation to offer higher salaries to teachers who want to be judged on merit, writing that there may be a "possible conflict with promoting collaboration and working together."

    They said it was politically thorny to change state code to punish districts that don't provide 180 days of instruction to students and that it "could create morale problems." (No West Virginia school offered 180 days of instruction during the 2009-2010 year, according to the audit. Of the 55 counties, 27 school systems offered only 169 days.)

    They like the idea of giving principals more control over school staffing and scheduling and about how to spend their school budget, even though it would "be a radical change."

    They also said they were acting on the audit's recommendation to improve technology offerings and online education by requesting $23 million from the governor to support one-to-one technology in six grades.

    All of the board's responses, however, are not official. Linger said the board's official audit response, which according to meeting minutes must include more media-friendly sound bites and a punchy introduction, will be complete by the end of the year.

    Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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