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More groups react to the education audit

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CHARLESTON, WV -

Nearly everyone in West Virginia is still grappling with the public education audit completed in January by Public Works of Pennsylvania.

During last month's interim committee meetings of the Legislature, lawmakers heard from the Department of Education.

Dec. 11, as part of the regular interim meetings, legislators got even more feedback about the audit.

Josh Sword, with the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia, said his organization would like to see a task force made up of all stakeholders to discuss education reform.

"Our organization supports increasing the enrollment of secondary students in career and technical programs through implementing a middle school pipeline," Sword said. "AFT-WV also agrees with the recommendation to streamline the delivery of professional development for principals and teachers."

Sword suggested that all stakeholders get together to look at everything in the audit, because the things with no opposition, and there are a number of them, will quickly rise to the top and can lead education reform.

Sword started with the AFT-WV's stance on the state's regional education service agencies, or RESAs.

Sword said RESAs were most likely established to move away from the 55 county boards of education to a more regional system, but there is no will to combine county boards of education.

"We are not saying that RESAs don't have some value, like technology assistance and support," he said. "But over the years, it seems RESAs have continually searched for things to justify their existence.

"RESAs have become, among other things, a retirement enhancement for retired county superintendents."

Sword also talked about school principals, noting that the audit and state Board of Education response to it gave a lot of weight as to why school principals should be more empowered.

"While AFT believes that we need to employer those at the school site, let me explain why that needs to be more than just empowering principals," Sword said. "Many people talk about the inability to ‘get rid of' bad teachers.

"The current process is not a hard one to follow; the breakdown in the process is with the implementation of the process at the school level."

Sword said many principals think the process is too cumbersome or too time consuming; however, moving away from the current practice that allows employees to be terminated if they don't correct their job deficiencies within a specific time window could lead to less clear and less objective processes for termination.

Sword said the audit and the state BOE report identified seniority as a barrier to hiring the most qualified candidate.

"Seniority is not the problem," he said. "There are countless unfilled teaching positions all across West Virginia.

"Why are we even discussing seniority when we have thousands of students sitting in classrooms without a content area-certified teacher, much less an experienced one?"

Sword also discussed teacher evaluation.

"Re-inventing the wheel is certainly not an efficient way to spend our taxpayers' money," he said.

And he gave a theory as to why the education audit stated that the proper level of teacher salaries is beyond the scope of the audit.

"Is it because that if they added the dollars needed to make teacher salaries more attractive in this report, Public Works would not be able to show savings as a result of implementing the other findings in the audit? We think so," Sword said.

Jackie Long, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said the audit neglected to mention nepotism or cronyism, among other things.

"It appears to us the audit would make the lowest paid education employees even poorer," Long said. "Shame on the auditors."

Long said some of the audit's suggestions, such as those regarding bus drivers, wouldn't work. If drivers work half days, there would be no one to drive the evening runs, Long said. And if they do double duty as classroom aides, they would require special training for special needs students.

Long said the audit seems to propose the worst lessons from corporate America.

Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association told lawmakers his organization worked with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office to organize seven forums for feedback from teachers and other service personnel.

"We want to improve an already good education system," Lee said.

When asked by Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, what he thought a reasonable starting teacher's salary should be, Lee said $40,000.

He said many people at the forums pointed out that the audit gave no mention of student or parent accountability.