By Hoppy Kercheval
Government bureaucracy announcements of plans to reorganize are often met with a fair amount of eye-rolling. After meetings, studies and more meetings, the deck chairs get rearranged and life goes on pretty much as it was before.
In West Virginia, education reformers have been stonewalled by the “third rail” of education politics—the 55 separate and distinct county school systems. Communities value the autonomy of the local school board, but also the school system has historically served as one of the largest, if not the largest, employer in the county.
Change is not high on most people’s agenda. However, former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used to say, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
For some months now, the West Virginia Board of Education Commission on School District Governance and Administration has been meeting (19 times in all) to try to figure out ways to consolidate some of the management and administrative functions of local school systems so superintendents, principals and administrators can concentrate more on their primary focus—student achievement.
The draft report suggests that things like business services, regulatory compliance, IT, transportation, food services, grant administration, human resources and more could be shifted from local boards to the RESAs (Regional Education Service Agencies). Each RESA serves multiple counties and could combine a number of these services, providing a much more streamlined solution.
The state’s current model of handling nearly all of these services separately in each of the 55 counties is costly and inefficient. A county with 1,400 or fewer students—we have seven of them—has to manage all the same administrative responsibilities as a county with 4,000 or more students.
As a consequence, we have over 600 central office administrators in the 55 county school systems with an estimated salary and benefit cost of $65 million. The state spent $116 million in fiscal year 2013 on county central office costs.
What if some of that money could be redirected to the classroom and administrators could be freed up to concentrate on student achievement instead of the management of services that are duplicated in each of the 55 counties? Counties can still have their school boards and local control, but they could be focused more the primary purpose of a thorough and efficient education.
The commission’s recommendations represent a serious and thoughtful approach to improving public education in West Virginia. Let’s hope they are not cast aside or reduced to inconsequential deck chair shuffling.