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Workers Anxiously Await Overhaul of Education Agency

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James I. Terry seems fairly enthusiastic about the reorganization of the Kentucky Department of Education, but he does have one basic concern: his mortgage payments.

Like the other 400 employees of the department, Mr. Terry, assistant director of the agency's insurance division, will see his job formally abolished at the end of June as the old department ceases to exist and a new agency is created.

And, although Mr. Terry and the other employees stand a good chance of finding positions in the reorganized agency, they are not being offered any guarantees.

"I have 21 years of experience in August and two small children in school, so this is not a good position to be in," Mr. Terry said.

Such anxieties were said to be common within the state education agency last week as Mr. Terry's co-workers lived with the fact their jobs may be sacrificed for the cause of ed4ucation reform.

Kentucky's comprehensive education-reform law, passed by the legislature a year ago last month, requires that all department employees be terminated and their positions abolished by June 30.

Although several other states have embarked on dramatic reorganizations of their education agencies in recent months, none has contemplated such a complete overhaul of an entire agency. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1990.)

Moreover, few states have tried to bring about an departmental reorganization so quickly.

The new commissioner of education, Thomas C. Boysen, who took office Jan. 1, is required by the reform law to create the new department positions, outline the qualifications needed for them, and have the reorganized agency structure in place on July 1--just six months after he stepped in the door.

As of last week, department officials said, the reorganization was proceeding as scheduled. But keeping the effort on track, they noted, has required a massive national recruiting campaign and the abandonment for now of some goals, such as changing state laws governing department employees.

The reform act "didn't just give lip service to what should be done in a restructured department of education," said Lois C. Adams, Mr. Boysen's chief of staff.

"With the whole department being abolished, it is pretty serious," Ms. Adams said. "To do this to the extent we need, it really would take about a year."

As commissioner, Mr. Boysen holds most of the duties formerly held by the state superintendent of public instruction, who ceased under the reform act to be chief state school officer as of the end of last year.

The commissioner also became the executive officer of the newly established State Board for Elementary and Secondary Education, an 11-member panel, appointed by the governor, that sets department policies.

Where Mr. Boysen may exert the most power, however, is in the reorganization of the department. Not only will he decide which department divisions are expanded, linked, or abolished, but he also has final say in who is selected to fill the new agency's positions.

Mr. Boysen has not yet announced his formal proposal for restructuring the department, and Ms. Adams was hesitant to describe the planned changes, asserting that anxious employees too easily misinterpret proposed changes as final.

"Even the draft copies that have been distributed for discussion suddenly become the way it is," said Ms. Adams. She noted that the commissioner will have received input from various state executive officers and submitted his plans to legislative leaders for review before asking Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson to sign an executive order authorizing the changes.

The reform act called for the department's focus to shift from the regulation of school districts to research, planning, and helping districts with curriculum design, school administration, and finance.

Ms. Adams said many of Mr. Boysen's changes in the agency also are intended to integrate various offices within the department, linking employees who deal with special, vocational, and compensatory education more closely with those involved with the regular curriculum.

"The reorganization within the department is hopefully going to establish a model for school systems," said Ms. Adams.

The act also called for the department next year to establish regional service centers focusing primarily on professional development of school-district employees.

Also mandated are a Principals' Assessment Center and a Superintendents' Training Program and Assessment Center, which will assess school administrators for initial or continued employment.

In an effort to fill the professional positions in the new department with the best candidates available, Mr. Boysen last month launched a massive recruitment campaign featuring advertisements in major state newspapers and national publications. The search is expected to cost more than $25,000.

"To achieve our mission of internationally superior schools in Kentucky by 1995, we must staff the department with the best professional leadership that we can find in the nation," Mr. Boysen said in a press release announcing the campaign, which also seeks to recruit qualified personnel through national education organizations.

So far, the recruitment efforts have drawn an estimated 325 applicants from around the country to about 250 open professional posts. Virtually all current department employees also have reapplied.

"We used to receive mail by the armload here. Now we receive it by the bagload," said Larry C. Conner, director of the department's division of personnel services.

The recruitment effort has been hampered, however, by civil-service rules that are holding many of the salaries offered by the department well below those now being offered by many Kentucky school districts as a result of finance reforms, Mr. Conner said.

A new educational-program consultant, for example, would come in to the department at a maximum salary of $28,980, while the average teacher in the state with similar experience is paid $35,000 per year, Mr. Conner noted.

Mr. Boysen had wanted to change the merit system to lift the lid on salaries for department employees. But leaders of the legislature, which was not scheduled to meet this year, declined his requests to hold a special session to consider the proposal.

Until lawmakers take up the issue in their regular session next year, the department plans to circumvent many of the pay lids by having many employees "loaned" to it by universities and local school districts. That will allow employees to receive salaries comparable to those at other publicly funded jobs, department officials said.

Karla D. Walker, who is coordinating the employee interviews for the department, said meetings with professional-staff candidates are expected to be completed this week, while interviews of division directors and associate and deputy directors may not be completed until early June.

To avoid political bias or favoritism, officials say, the interviews are being conducted by three-member panels consisting of a personnel specialist, an education specialist, and an education generalist from outside the department.

All things being equal, Ms. Walker said, a current department employee is likely to have the edge over an outsider when reapplying for a job.

Nevertheless, morale among current employees is said to have taken a nosedive, with absenteeism rising about 3 percent, according to Mr. Conner.

To help prevent false rumors of changes and keep employees informed, Mr. Boysen has used a transition newsletter, an employee newsletter, personnel-advisory committees, and question-and-answer sessions conducted on closed-circuit television hookups with various offices.

But, while praising the commissioner's handling of the reorganization effort, Mr. Terry said, "Nothing will satisfy our appetite for information other than the answer to: Do we have a job as of July 1?"

"You don't have much motivation if you don't know if you are going to have a job," he mused. "A lot of little things are being put aside."

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