WV school board lays off audit staff amid funding concerns

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W.Va. Schools Superintendent Steve Paine

The West Virginia Board of Education, in a voice vote Wednesday, approved laying off the employees of the state Office of Education Performance Audits, amid funding for a possible successor program being targeted for cuts by the House of Delegates.

That move came the same day a state school board committee heard final funding requests from the Regional Education Service Agencies, totaling $1.1 million, in order to continue operating in some capacity next fiscal year before their planned demise.

But Gov. Jim Justice, who introduced this year’s successful bill to eliminate the auditing office and regional agencies, hasn’t indicated whether he will support the regional agencies’ requests amid the continued state budget impasse. State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine said neither the governor, nor either side of the Legislature has shown interest in providing the final funding requested.

The continued state board meeting Thursday added to the uncertainty over state education programs and their funding.

Paine left the meeting amid a presentation on the state’s proposed new school accountability plan to, Paine said, call and tell Senate Education Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, that he does not, despite alleged miscommunication to the contrary, support all the cuts the House has proposed making to state education funding.

Kristin Anderson, communications director for the state Department of Education, said the House’s version of the budget bill would cut dollars for technology system specialists in 20 counties, math and science partnership initiatives with Marshall University’s June Harless Center for Rural Education Research and Development, truancy diversion specialists and other areas.

Justice and majorities in the House and Senate still are arguing amongst one another over the state budget for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. In order to avoid a partial state government shutdown, they must pass a budget before July 1, although lawmakers have warned delays in payroll and vendor payments are possible if the budget is not approved by June 19.

Paine said the Senate’s budget is very close to what Justice proposed, but the House’s version “cuts our budget substantially, is the idea, in some pretty key areas.”

He said that among those cuts is more than $1 million that was intended to set up something akin to the auditing office — which was separate from the education department but still under the state school board — within the education department itself.

But Paine said his version wouldn’t be “anything like” the previous version.

The auditing office sent retired school administrators and current administrators into schools to assess factors including teaching of statewide education standards, student safety and principal leadership. The reviewers weren’t allowed to audit schools in the counties in which they work, and schools were made aware of the on-site review dates in advance.

Paine said his idea for a new direction for oversight and support involves using more data monitoring through technology and only relying on sending in-person audit teams into schools as “kind of a last resort” when issues aren’t fixed or the department gets a complaint about a serious issue.

The Justice-backed House Bill 2711, which lawmakers passed in April on the last night of the regular legislative session, eliminated the auditing office and the regional agencies.

“I think it’s important for us to have some kind of accreditation function that we take on,” Paine said. “It’s going to be very, very difficult, with all the other reductions, to try to figure out how to carry on that function without resources.”

Linked to the state board’s meeting agenda was a personnel attachment that says it was “amended 11:30 a.m.” on Wednesday, about an hour and a half before Wednesday’s meeting began. The personnel attachment says the following auditing office employees were laid off, followed by their annual salaries:

n Director Susan O’Brien, $120,000

n Coordinator Elisabeth Samples, $79,900

n Coordinator Deborah Ashwell, $78,300

n Coordinator Charlene Coburn, $78,300

n Information Systems Technician Tammy Brown, $55,100

Two auditing office secretaries were also laid off, and the attachment says auditing office Manager Allen Brock, who had a $80,400 salary, resigned June 2. Paine said the laid off employees are welcome to apply for other vacancies in the department.

The personnel attachment approved Wednesday also noted resignations in Regional Education Service Agency 7, including Finance Director Scott Reider, effective June 30, Assistant to the Executive Director Mary Lewis, effective June 2, and Payroll Coordinator Tracy Hines, effective May 31.

Kathy Hypes, executive director of that regional agency, said she has one part-time payroll worker left, and she’s currently searching for a retired chief financial officer to contract with. She also said “we’ve realigned some duties with some other secretaries to help with billing and invoicing.”

“Yes, we’ve lost some key players, key individuals,” said Hypes, whose agency requested $187,000 for next fiscal year. She said the finance employees resigning found other jobs, and said she’s encouraged employees who can find better employment to do so.

Although HB 2711 cut the agencies’ funding, it also said they could continue to exist until school boards of the counties within them either form a cooperative agreement changing them, decide to dissolve them or July 1, 2018, arrived, when the agencies would have to dissolve if school boards hadn’t yet made a decision. The law newly allows counties to form “educational services cooperatives.”

But to help with that transition period, some argue they need to retain certain employees, and they’ve requested $1.1 million in funding for next fiscal year to supplement any leftover dollars from this fiscal year.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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