Government, Latest News, WVPA Sharing

Bill to eliminate RESAs, OEPA has week left to pass


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — On Tuesday, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation that would, among many other things, eliminate the Regional Education Service Agencies, established in law in 1972, and the Office of Education Performance Audits, created in 1998.

The bill (HB 2711), which Gov. Jim Justice filed, has until midnight Saturday to pass.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, said the only reason the bill wasn’t on his committee’s agenda Saturday was because speakers weren’t available. He said he’s trying to find a slot for today or Tuesday, but he doesn’t know yet whether he personally supports nixing the regional agencies or the auditing office.

The auditing office, under the state Board of Education, sends reviewers into schools to assess factors including their principals’ leadership, their teaching of statewide education standards and their ability to keep students safe.

This year’s move to possibly eliminate these longtime K-12 public education arms was abrupt considering how long it took the bill to come up in a legislative committee, and how quickly it flew through the House of Delegates to now reach the Senate side.

But, on the other hand, there have for years been at least questions about the purpose of the Regional Education Service Agencies. There are currently eight of these multi-county agencies, which are supposed to aid county public school systems through shared services and other offerings.

“For our purposes, the question of what RESAs ‘do’ is subject to considerable speculation,” stated an October 2016 report from the West Virginia School Board Association, an organization composed of county school board members. “The question persists despite legislators’ and the state Board of Education’s efforts to determine, define, or refine these agencies’ purposes.”

A December legislative audit recommended taking away all of the regional agencies’ “autonomy and independence” and transferring their power and employees to the state Department of Education.

But that audit, which was strongly criticized by the regional agencies’ leaders, noted the existence of four other studies of the regional agencies since 2012.

“In general, these studies have acknowledged RESAs as important resources for the State’s public education system,” the audit said. “However, while the studies recognized the strengths and value of RESAs, several concerns were raised identifying structural problems and limitations.”

One study the audit noted was an October 2014 report from a state school board commission that broadly recommended moving managerial functions, like business and legal services, away from the state’s 55 county school boards and to the regional agencies over five years.

The report said this would leave the county school boards to focus on student education and give them more flexibility in using their funding. The regional agencies would help smaller school systems to share services with larger ones.

The 2012 Education Efficiency Audit of West Virginia’s Primary and Secondary Education System, produced by the private firm Public Works LLC and not the state Legislative Auditor’s Office, also didn’t suggest eliminating the regional agencies. But it included this paragraph:

“The lack of a statewide, coordinated planning process for the RESAs creates a system that fosters independence but also allows the RESAs to work in isolation, sometimes to the detriment of the entire system. There are opportunities to reduce duplication of effort and increase efficiencies if [the state education department] establishes a comprehensive planning process, helps RESAs identify core services to be provided by all RESAs and works to establish shared services across RESAs.

“For example, some RESAs have developed expertise in cooperative purchasing, others excel at technology, still others provide superior services to districts for students with special needs, and some provide specialized services such as audiology screening. In all of these examples, and more, resource sharing among RESAs should be more fully explored.”

The 2012 audit also said that “RESAs should be working together on many ‘back office’ functions such as cooperative purchasing, assistance in recruitment, assessing possible energy savings, and other functions districts must perform in order to operate at their best. Currently, these services are provided sporadically around the state.”

That audit did recommend eliminating the regional agencies’ advisory boards, called “regional councils,” and replacing them with new advisory boards composed of just school system superintendents.

While stating that it eliminates the current regional agencies, the amended version of the bill allows school boards to enter into cooperative agreements with one another to form “educational services cooperatives.” The bill even states that “All references in this code to regional education service agencies or RESA’s mean an educational services cooperative.”

The bill states it would cut the current regional agencies’ $3.7 million legislative appropriation, much of which goes to pay the agencies’ top administrators, effective July 1 of this year.

It says it would eliminate the current regional agencies completely by July 1 of next year, unless the school boards of the counties that make up those regional agencies agree to dissolve them faster.

But the bill says the educational services cooperatives will have access to funding from county school boards, the state education department and various grants. Money from such sources ups the revenue for the current regional agencies from the $3.7 million legislative appropriation to about $50 million for all eight agencies.

The property and records of the dissolving agencies would first be required to be transferred to “any successor educational services cooperative substantially covering the same geographical area.”

But instead of advisory boards, these cooperatives would have governing councils that actually control them. Each governing council would at least consist of the superintendents and one school board member from each participating county, and those individuals could choose to let other individuals join the council.

Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association, said the current regional agencies do provide many services to county school systems.

“The value of the bill is that it begins to recognize that the needs of counties are discrete rather than geographically bound by a RESA region,” O’Cull said.

He said county school systems in separate geographical areas would be able to cooperate and identify ways to better and more efficiently serve students. He said customization is what the current system needs.

O’Cull said that under current law, some school boards have actually shared services outside the regional agencies, “but there is no express way to bring that about  it’s kind of a loose ground here that this bill firms up.”

The bill doesn’t require school boards to form cooperatives. That point was raised on the House floor, with concern over what will happen to the hundreds of current regional agency employees if school board cooperatives don’t retain them.

O’Cull said external factors should encourage forming cooperatives. He noted declining enrollment generally means automatic drops in state funding for school boards, and said the state’s aging citizenry doesn’t like to support excess property tax levies and bonds to support school systems.

“With declining enrollment, with an aging administrative population, with aging school teachers and others, then all those factors now create a different environment,” O’Cull said.

However, he said his organization is concerned about what structure will take the place of the current regional agencies, though he hopes new meetings of superintendents that are also required in the bill will help develop the structure.

“If you do away with the RESA structure, which at least was a structure, what do you put in its place?” O’Cull said. “Now we’re just throwing it out in the environment and expecting it to work.”

While he repeatedly said he wanted to make education a “centerpiece” during his campaign, new Gov. Jim Justice didn’t provide many specifics on his plans during his ultimately successful race.

He surprised viewers during his Jan. 16 inauguration speech by saying: “Today, I have an education plan right here, that I’m going to submit immediately for people to review. It’s going to be the elimination of a bunch of unnecessary agencies, it’s going to be a look at education in a different way that has never been looked at for a long, long, long time.”

But he didn’t submit any plan immediately, despite requests for him to do so. It wasn’t until Feb. 23, 15 days into this year’s legislative session, that his desire to eliminate the 45-year-old Regional Education Service Agencies and the nearly 20-year-old Office of Education Performance Audits was revealed through his filing of his wide-ranging K-12 education bill.

The bill filing came in Justice’s second month of serving in his first elected public office — aside from a brief stint on Raleigh County’s school board nearly two decades ago.

Following the bill’s filing, the state Legislature took no action on the bill until March 22, when it popped up on the House Education Committee’s agenda for the first time and, after a 4-hour meeting from 7 to 11 p.m. that night, passed out of the committee.

From that point, an amended version of the governor’s bill hurdled through the House Finance Committee and through amendments and the final vote on the House floor. The bill achieved this despite the fact that the GOP-controlled House Finance Committee removed Justice’s proposed statewide classroom teacher pay increase from the bill.

So here West Virginia is, on the brink of possibly passing a bill that would eliminate these longtime education institutions.

Aside from the $3.7 million that would no longer go to the regional agencies, eliminating the auditing office would save $1.2 million, according to a fiscal note provided by the education department on the introduced version of the bill.

But the full costs, financial and otherwise, of their elimination are currently unclear.

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