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Lincoln County Schools are making progress

Dec. 23, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

West Virginia Board of Education members had little choice when they voted to intervene in Lincoln County schools in 2000. An audit by the Office of Education Performance Audits had uncovered evidence of questionable financial and hiring practices in the county offices as well as serious facilities, curriculum and leadership issues.

The audit team visited 16 schools at the time. None was up to standards. In all, Lincoln County schools were cited for 213 instances of noncompliance with state standards.

Since the intervention, Lincoln County has worked steadily to resolve the majority of its issues, and has reached the point of earning back control of its system. Many of the very same teachers who were working in the schools when intervention occurred are still there today. But with leadership and successful research-based professional development, they have helped students improve and achieve.

Gone, too, are the dilapidated schools with, as the OEPA noted, "urine-soaked walls." Nearly all students, teachers and staff now have either new state-of-the-art or renovated schools that better support learning. Advanced Placement classes are commonplace, and once non-existent technology is available to enhance learning opportunities.

The state constitution requires the Legislature to establish a "thorough and efficient" system of schools, and the state Board of Education is charged with supervising that system. In 1979, the West Virginia Supreme Court defined that as "the best the state of education expertise allows."

State law authorizes the state Board of Education to declare a state of emergency and to intervene in county school systems whenever "extraordinary circumstances" exist. Under state intervention, county boards lose much of their decision-making powers. The state board and its state-appointed superintendent oversee personnel, curriculum, budget and the school calendar, leaving the locally elected officials with lesser tasks.

Since 1988, the state Board of Education has declared a state of emergency 10 times in order to take over operation of a county school system. More often than not, poor education programs, inefficient leadership, unsafe conditions for students, and misappropriation of funds are among the reasons a school system faces a state intervention.

We have learned, as was the case in Lincoln County, that leadership is the key to a successful intervention. When you have good leaders in place with the vision to address academic standards, conditions for learning improve and academic achievement improves.

All of the lessons learned from Lincoln County and other systems in intervention have been organized and packaged into a concise guidance document. To help counties operating under intervention regain control of their schools, the state board developed "Non-Approval Status and Intervention into County Educational Systems: The Process and Guidelines for Superintendents and Local Boards Under Intervention." The document provides a basic template of an exit plan from state control, in addition to recommendations for personnel.

Although there has always been a process for the counties to exit state control, guidance most often was provided orally before this document was created. We believe having a written document strengthens communication among the Office of Education Performance Audits, the West Virginia School Boards Association, the West Virginia Department of Education, the state Board of Education and the intervention counties so that students are provided the education they deserve.

The guidelines provide needed consistency when local school officials change, which is often the case after state intervention. The guidelines define steps necessary to correct deficiencies and a clear timeline of what a school system must report to the state. The document also includes a sample template of actions, deadlines, personnel responsible for that action and progress on completing that action.

Nobody gains pleasure from taking over a school system from local leaders. Nevertheless, the decision made by board members before my term to protect the children of Lincoln County was a brave one, made with the best interests of children in mind. Decisions that put the needs of the children first, as the state board did in Lincoln County, are never wrong.

When the West Virginia Board of Education conducted its recent December meeting in Hamlin, we had the pleasure of returning control to the local board. We were confident in our decision to do so knowing that the county has a dedicated leader in Lincoln County Superintendent Patricia Lucas. Together with the current local board, Superintendent Lucas is providing the leadership educators, parents and others had longed for all those years ago. Their positive efforts were greeted with a standing ovation at our meeting.

While Lincoln County still has improvements to make, particularly in the area of student achievement, we know they have the capacity to progress in ways that best fit their community needs. All members of the state board wish them well and look forward to hearing more about the good things going on in Lincoln County schools.

Wade Linger is president of the West Virginia Board of Education.

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