School governance commission's proposal shifts duties to RESAs

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By Mackenzie Mays  
The Charleston Gazette  

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State education officials say a new “balanced governance” plan will redirect money back into West Virginia’s classrooms by eliminating positions in school board offices across the state and using that money to directly benefit students.

The five-year plan — proposed by the state Board of Education’s Commission on School District Governance — would make major changes to the way the state’s 55 school districts operate and hopes to allow local superintendents and school boards to focus solely on student achievement, while handing day-to-day managerial responsibilities over to the state’s eight Regional Education Service Agencies.

According to a draft of the proposal, the changes would allow school leaders, superintendents and local school boards to focus solely on student achievement and education policies.

In a meeting Tuesday, education officials pointed to a declining student population and increasingly small school districts with too many central office employees as a major obstacle to restructuring the state’s public school system.

About half of the state’s counties have fewer than 4,000 students; 14 counties have fewer than 2,000; and seven have student populations of fewer than 1,400, according to the Department of Education. But all districts — regardless of size — often employ the same number of administrators.

There are more than 600 central office administrators in the state’s public school system, totaling to an estimated cost of nearly $65 million in salary and benefits, according to the department.

That’s in addition to nearly 300 elected members of local boards of education who received about $1.4 million total compensation in 2013.

The state spends nearly $116 million on central office costs, which includes local superintendents’ staff and central services that include things like distributing and personnel services.

“What it comes down to is, every county has essentially the same administrative functions whether they have 20,000 students or 1,000 students. And everybody is saying that doesn’t make sense,” Barbara Parsons, Monongalia County school board president, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re looking to allow boards of education to experience financial advantages through shared services at a regional level at lesser costs … and that’s something that’s beginning to appeal to county boards because of shrinking education dollars and the need to boost the focus on student outcomes.”

RESAs now lead professional development activities for teachers and write grants for schools, among other things.

The proposal would allow schools to lean on RESAs for various bookkeeping and financial services, while using money that now pays for those school positions to be used elsewhere.

Doug Lambert, superintendent of Pendleton County Schools, said he’s already looking at ways to downsize departments like accounts receivable and accounts payable.

“If it’s done at the RESAs, it’s a shared service. Right now we’ve got two people in that department with a salary between $60,000 to $70,000. If we can cut that in half, maybe we can get a teacher’s aide to come work with kids on their reading skills,” Lambert, who serves on the Commission on School District Governance, said Tuesday. “If we can recoup those savings to help us do something in the classroom, why wouldn’t we?”

While the report says that various “all or nothing” options were considered — such as consolidating all 55 districts into the RESAs or eliminating RESAs altogether — commission members said Tuesday that those are no longer options.

Commission member Newton Thomas, formerly of ITT Carbon Resources, voiced several concerns on Tuesday about the funding of the proposed changes and unknown projections of how much it could actually save the state.

The report itself questions whether there is the capacity for county superintendents to lead what essentially would be policy boards or boards driven more by a desire to focus on student achievement.

The commission will present its plan at a state school board meeting next month