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Trustees consider new review option by superintendents group / August 30, 2010
Halifax County School Board members on Friday afternoon weighed a new option for a school efficiency study — a low-cost route for assessing education programs and procedures that proponents pitched as an “educational services review.”

Bob McCracken and Bonny Wilson, two retired school superintendents, spoke to the School Board about the school review process that the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) conducts for participating school divisions. Using the term “educational services review,” the VASS representatives said the type of study the organization offers is non-political, honest, and geared towards fostering best practices in Virginia school divisions.

The trustees took no action following the VASS representatives’ presentation, but indicated they would consider options for enlisting VASS at their next regular monthly meeting in September

Speaking to the board at a special meeting Friday, McCracken explained that VASS evaluators look at the strengths of the system, its weaknesses and then suggest solutions to its problems. “You tell us what you want and we can give you a customized study built around your agenda,” he said.

McCracken added that VASS is in a unique position to gain a clear picture of operations of school systems in Virginia, noting his own experience as a retired superintendent in southwest Giles County. Wilson served as superintendent in Rockbridge County before retiring.

Wilson, who has been working on such reviews for the past 15 years, said VASS looks at a broad range of questions related to best practices for schools in Virginia. She cited compensation, special education and transportation as examples of the types of areas that VASS evaluators will review.

Both speakers said they usually come into a community and spend two to three days personally on research, interviewing administrators, staffers and others involved in school operations. They bring with them anywhere from two to six other members, who are school-level specialists selected from divisions around the state. After the initial visit, the reviewers leave and go back to study the information. They look at all the data they have collected, along with data from the Department of Education and suggestions from their peer members in drawing up recommendations for the division that is subject of the study.

In a brochure handed out to school board members, McCracken and Wilson listed the benefits of a VASS study: provides an independent analysis and objective point of view regarding all division programs and operations; suggests new ideas for delivering instructional programs, carrying out day-to-day operations, improving communications and planning; and provides an opportunity for division personnel to give their perceptions of division strengths and areas for improvement.

The study would also be a springboard for setting priorities for specific areas for improvement, McCracken and Wilson noted. They also said it would sharpen the schools’ “improvement focus” — by weighing how well the central and school administration supports individual programs and other operations, by evaluating the adequacy of internal fiscal controls, and by providing a platform for self-evaluation, modification of division goals and objectives for improvement of all educational programs.

McCracken said the school board could ask VASS to do a comprehensive review of all services, or it could chose specific areas for study, such as financial services or special education services.

While McCracken and Wilson said they were not in a position to finalize contracts, they pegged the cost of their services at somewhere between $12,000 and $15,000. They estimated the study could be completed in six to eight weeks and noted that they would need advance notice of four to six weeks to contract their services. Asked later when they might be able to start such a study for Halifax County, they said they currently are not conducting any reviews, so they could get started as soon as school systems complete their opening sessions.

Following the presentation by VASS representatives, school trustees voted to accept the revised draft of the county’s 2010-15 Strategic Plan, while emphasizing that it is “a work in progress.” The four-member committee composed of Chairman Roger Long and members Joe Gasperini, Karen Hopkins and Kim Farson will meet again before the September meeting to consider the plan once more.

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