W.Va. school reform ‘stars aligned’: Plan puts RESAs in charge of management, money

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By Mackenzie Mays, 

The West Virginia Board of Education is considering major reform for the state’s school system, which would change the way local school districts operate. 

Education leaders are examining ways to restructure the state’s 55-district school system by putting school management and bookkeeping responsibilities in the hands of an outside entity, allowing local administrators to focus more on student achievement. 

As part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s comprehensive education bill, a Commission on School District Governance and Administration was formed last year to examine possible inefficiencies in the state’s school system. The school board has asked Thomas Alsbury, a professor at Seattle Pacific University who studies school boards and school governance, to develop ways that West Virginia could restructure its system, to become more fiscally efficient while also allowing local school officials to have a voice.

On Thursday, Alsbury recommended a “balanced governance model” for West Virginia that would be the first of its kind in the country, pointing to unorthodox education systems in Finland and Taiwan — where student achievement is among the best in the world.

“It removes the management-type responsibilities out of the local realm, and, frankly, these are responsibilities that often take up enormous amounts of time. By removing some of those, individuals can focus more on education improvement,” Alsbury said. “What we know from our research, very clearly, is that local boards that can focus on instructional improvement and are looking for bold progress in student achievement are much more successful, and those who focus on management issues are less successful.” 

The proposal would “strike a balance” between centralizing certain responsibilities, creating fiscal efficiencies and maintaining a local community voice, Alsbury said.

“I’m very excited and nervous about this. This has never been done in the U.S.,” Alsbury said. “We’ve had elected boards, we’ve had mayoral control. We’ve never had any entity to attempt a balanced system. That’s what we’re attempting to do for you in West Virginia.” 

State School Board President Gayle Manchin called tasks such as payroll and tracking of student attendance “a financial drain” on school systems. She said there’s an existing vehicle that could take on those jobs instead: Regional Education Service Agencies. RESAs already handle things such as cooperative purchasing for school systems. 

“That’s what I feel so good about. We don’t have to create a system to take on some of these responsibilities — we have one,” Manchin said. “I think we have a great opportunity at a time where we are implementing a lot of change. These types of efforts — if we don’t do them now, we may never have this opportunity again.” 

Manchin said Thursday “the stars have aligned.” 

“I think the governor creating the commission was certainly visionary, in terms of forcing us to look and see what’s possible. I just think we’re at a point in this state where we can’t afford not to look at this kind of a model,” she said. “It all blends into everything that we have been trying to do for the last couple of years with Tomblin’s agenda.”
State school board member Tom Campbell, who chairs the Commission on School District Governance and Administration, said he’s excited to begin collaborating with the Board of Education, to start implementing some of the ideas.

The commission will meet Sept. 30 to vote on final district recommendations that will then be forwarded to the WVBE. The report also will be placed on public comment.

“The recommendations will shift the focus of the entire public education system in the Mountain State so the attention is on heightening student achievement,” Campbell said. “The final report will include several short- and long-term strategies that would allow school systems to largely focus on learning, especially at the site or classroom level.”

Some school board members, though, have concerns — particularly, how the proposed plan would affect small school systems.

Nine school boards in the state have fewer than 1,400 students in their system, according to state board member Lloyd Jackson.

“Lets assume we do get boards totally focused on academics. Some boards are becoming so small, they just can’t provide the services they might need to support it,” Jackson said. “I worry about leaving it to the school boards to decide the academic functions — not that they couldn’t do it in the right system.”