School governance commission suggests policy change delay

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By Ryan Quinn  
The Charleston Gazette  

Members of a state school board commission considered Wednesday altering the map of Regional Education Service Agencies, but got held up on something people have been asking for years — what are RESAs supposed to do?

The Commission on School District Governance and Administration eventually decided to recommend that the state school board, at its meeting this month, delay altering RESAs’ roles and stick with the current map of eight RESAs containing several counties each — Kanawha, Putnam, Boone and Clay counties are all in RESA 3, for instance — but with the stipulation that school districts can seek services in RESAs they’re not part of. That’s something local school officials said Wednesday they’re already doing, based on which RESA is best in a needed service, like information technology.

“The geographic location of a RESA is less important than it was in the ’70s,” when they were created, commission chairman Thomas Campbell said. He said the only purpose of the map was to determine who sits on the Regionals Councils, the boards that lead RESAs and contain county superintendents and local school board members.

The commission also recommended the state school board establish measurements for the RESAs’ performance and stop RESAs from performing “entrepreneurial functions,” like training EMTs and volunteer firefighters, that don’t relate to teaching. RESAs use such entrepreneurial functions to make money, but Campbell said he didn’t know how much and suggested these services could actually have a negative impact on RESA budgets.

RESAs’ roles are important because the commission, in an Oct. 23 report currently receiving public comments, broadly recommended moving managerial functions, like business and legal services, away from the state’s 55 county school boards and to the RESAs over five years — leaving the county school boards to focus on student education and giving them more flexibility in using their funding. The RESAs would help smaller districts to share services with larger ones.

“We readily acknowledge that county boards of education must adapt or be fitted into a future varying greatly from how boards operate currently,” the report states.

The report sought to address perceived inefficiencies in the education system of a state with relatively poor student performance, beleaguered county school districts that the state school board has sometimes resorted to taking over and the loss, according to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, of a quarter of student enrollment over the past three decades.

The 50-page report was crafted through 19 meetings since the governance and administration commission was created in March 2013, following the governor’s State of the State Address focusing on education the month prior. Tomblin said he supported using RESAs to make change.

But on Wednesday, some commission members suggested instead centralizing more educational services within the RESAs and leaving business services to the local school districts.

“It’s a different direction from the original report,” Campbell said. But he noted that was not an official recommendation of the commission.

“My personal opinion is that the truth is somewhere in the middle, that we’ll find that there are some business functions that can be dealt with, probably not just regionally but statewide,” he said. He said he just found out Wednesday that payroll is already somewhat centralized.

He also noted that the Republican takeover in November has changed the players in the debate.

“Financial, fiscal responsibility is going to be more important than ever,” Campbell said, adding, with a laugh, that he doesn’t see any “revenue enhancements” in the future.

Possible wasteful spending was highlighted in the Oct. 23 report. The state school board says there are about 609 central office administrators across the 55 counties pulling a total salary and benefits cost of $65 million annually. West Virginia spent a total $116 million on central office costs in these counties in fiscal year 2012-13.

Functions that could be consolidated into RESAs include business, food, human resources and technology services, auditing, transportation, special education management, compliance reporting, grants acquisition and educational materials purchasing. The report states money saved through consolidation should be retained by the county school boards “whenever possible,” but shall not be used to hire more administrators.

The document notes the commission did consider simply eliminating the county school boards, whose 275 total members received more than $1 million in compensation in fiscal year 2012-13, but decided against it, saying it would violate “the long-cherished principle of citizen accountability for public education.” It does not, however, rule out consolidating some school districts themselves as a “final recourse” and suggests also creating schools “that may involve two or more counties.”

It notes 28 districts have fewer than 4,000 kids, 14 fewer than 2,000 and seven fewer than 1,400 — the enrollment needed to meet minimum fixed costs under the state funding formula.

“Current school district preservation should and must become a secondary consideration to the need for student support and performance,” the report states, though it notes district consolidation could threaten the survival of small communities.

The report also recommends focusing the state school board “more on broader aspects of policy and vision-framing than a board focused on compliance through policy” and seeks to concentrate school reform at individual schools.

It recommends additional training for superintendents and county school board members, plus an external assessment of county school boards every other year. The RESAs, with their increased power, will also be under “continuous review” with required monthly financial reports to the state board of education’s finance committee. An apparent lack of oversight allowed the finance secretary for one RESA to embezzle more than $1.3 million.