Gilmer freed from takeover if it agrees to keep state-appointed super

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

Gilmer County’s public school system can be freed from a half-decade of state takeover if its locally elected school board members agree to keep their state-appointed superintendent — who opposed returning local control and with whom local board members have fought — through June 30.

The West Virginia Board of Education decided Wednesday to offer the deal, three years after voting to return partial control to Gilmer’s board.

If the Gilmer board approves the memorandum of understanding requiring it to keep the state-appointed superintendent, Gabe Devono, they’ll be freed from state control Jan. 6.

Devono could leave before June 30 if he and the board mutually agree to part ways. He said his contract, which pays him $126,000 annually, expires June 30 anyway, and he didn’t know whether he’d request a contract extension or apply to another superintendent position.
State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano referenced other requirements in the MOU during Wednesday’s board meeting, but he didn’t specify them. State Department of Education spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said the actual MOU hasn’t been drafted, and said the department would just be adding to the superintendent provisions “procedural language” outlined in policies and state law.

Bill White was the only state school board member to vote no in the voice vote Wednesday, citing a “dysfunctional board” in Gilmer and that he didn’t know what else the MOU would say.

Board member Tom Campbell wasn’t present, and Gayle Manchin, whose term technically expired in November 2015, finally sent a resignation letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin Nov. 30 of this year. She said she had asked him well before that time to fill her seat, but he hasn’t yet done so.

The vote came after an Office of Education Performance Audits report — based upon an audit conducted on Oct. 27 and 28 of this year — recommended for the first time that the state school board release its hold on Gilmer, which Devono said only has about 850 students.

That recommendation was despite the fact that the report noted Devono and two of its five local school board members told the OEPA team that they opposed the return of local democracy to their county.

“The superintendent opposed the ending of the state control, stating that the board remained dysfunctional, politicized, and incapable of functioning as a local board,” the report states. “He stated more time was needed for the treasurer and personnel [and] staff to acclimate to their job responsibilities.”

“The Gilmer County Board of Education is operating well in spite of the still somewhat dysfunctional county board and the poor relationship between some board members and the state appointed superintendent,” the audit concludes. “The OEPA Team stated the board of education office will continue to run effectively if the local board members respect and follow their roles and responsibilities provided in State code, working with and through the county superintendent.

“Based on evidence and interviews, the OEPA Team found the current local board and state appointed superintendent will not make significant progress in relations regardless of state or local control. Differing personalities, personal agendas, and political pressure will continue to plague the improvement in superintendent/board relations. Unused school property, personnel, and the role of the local board in operations will continue to be a problem for the county,” the audit continues.

“The intention for the initial state takeover of Gilmer County Board of Education was due to improper functioning of the county board of education office,” the audit continues. “This issue has been satisfactorily corrected under the state appointed superintendent and central office staff. Therefore, it is the recommendation of the OEPA that full control be returned to Gilmer County Board of Education and allow the county to determine its future operations.”

If Gilmer agrees to the MOU, Fayette County would be the only remaining public school system in the state still under state control.
The new audit notes that the Gilmer school system’s personnel department “Stated that return to local control would most likely cause the current superintendent to be removed by the local board,” and stated that it believed “the State Board should maintain control of the local board.”

While the audit notes that workers in Gilmer’s finance and curriculum offices “stated that without a strong superintendent, the board members could revert to micro-management of the system,” these employees also said Gilmer “is capable of self-management and State control needs to end,” that “the community feels that with state control, the school system is not theirs” and “the next [excess property tax] levy vote may fail if the system remains under state control.”

“The board of education office is functioning efficiently and in compliance with State code and [state board] policy,” the audit states. “Student achievement is stable and increasing.”

The board spent more than two hours in closed session Wednesday discussing what it said were personnel issues before taking a vote on Gilmer.

Also Wednesday, the board, in a voice vote with no nays heard, approved providing a total of about $1.7 million in Innovation in Education grant funds for seven schools: $276,000 for Kanawha County’s Dunbar Intermediate, $164,000 for Mary Ingles Elementary, $154,000 for Berkeley County’s Spring Mills High, $160,000 for Barbour County’s Philip Barbour High, $300,000 for Greenbrier County’s Greenbrier West High, $298,000 for Marshall County’s John Marshall High and $300,000 for Tucker County High.

The funds will go toward various initiatives in the schools, according to a state Department of Education document that briefly describes the programs.

Dunbar Intermediate, for example, will in the afternoons “use a split grade option for grades 3-5 that will allow students to be combined by choice into groups of common interest,” while Mary Ingles will, among other things, “facilitate evening classes and open internet time with potential certifications for adults [parents].”
The state Department of Education said applications were reviewed by a selection committee with representatives from the department, the state school board, the Governor’s Office, Marshall University, educators, administrators and others.

Clayton Burch, the education department’s chief academic officer, said the committee met on Dec. 7 and 8. He said there were about 50-60 “intent to apply” applications but only 43 final applications.

Burch said there’s still about $700,000 in grant money left, and the committee is still working with seven more applicants to tweak their proposals. He said he plans to present another batch of applications to the board for approval in January.

In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill (HB 4295) that ended funding for the existing Innovation Zones and Local Solution Dropout Prevention and Recovery Innovation Zones and reallocated the current Innovation Zone funding to the Innovation in Education program.

Tomblin backed the bill, describing the program as an alternative to charter schools that offers similar flexibilities. The newly Republican-controlled Legislature had expressed interest in finally legalizing charters in West Virginia, but a bill filed this year to do so didn’t move forward.

While the winning schools will be using exemptions from various state school board policies, Burch said none of the applicants that received grants are seeking state law exemptions. Innovation in Education newly allows schools to request waivers from state personnel laws.

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