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Ky. Watchdog Office Is 'SWAT Team' for Education Reforms

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FRANKFORT, KY.--Standing on the edge of a rolling pasture at her home near here, Penney Sanders points toward a single mule standing guard over a flock of rams.

The mule, meant to ward off dogs and coyotes that might threaten the herd, is an unlikely watchdog, a role that is not foreign to Ms. Sanders, a part-time farmer and the full-time director of Kentucky's Office of Education Accountability.

Created by the legislature in 1990 as part of the state's sweeping school-reform law, the office monitors implementation of new programs and enforces governance mandates.

Far from being a lazy sentry, the everyday operation amounts to a busy intelligence and clearinghouse operation. Lawmakers call the office, which is a branch of the legislature, their "education SWAT team.''

Working mostly behind the scenes, Ms. Sanders and her small staff use their narrow focus on reform implementation to advise politicians and bureaucrats, assist educators and administrators, and inform community activists.

"In the past, when people encountered problems, they identified it but didn't have a mechanism to fix it,'' Ms. Sanders said. "What we've tried to do is move behind the scenes to make course corrections.''

"We don't seek and don't get headlines,'' she added. "What matters is that the job gets done.''

The accountability office backs up the basic idea behind the reform law, that more is now expected from the state's school leaders, said Valerie Forti, an assistant director.

"We are unwavering,'' Ms. Forti said. "The law is the law, and we aren't cutting deals with anybody by saying that what you are doing is not quite right but that's O.K.''

A Need for Follow-Up

The accountability office was created out of concern that forceful observation and follow-up were necessary for the success of the comprehensive reform law, which combined an attack on nepotism and patronage in the schools with a call for innovative classroom reforms that had never been attempted on a statewide scale.

The office was designed to report to lawmakers, who set up an oversight committee to supervise its work.

Because the impetus for the reform law was a court decision striking down the state school-finance system, the office was charged with studying the intricacies of the funding formula. In addition, the office was assigned to follow implementation of the range of reform programs, from ungraded primary classrooms to family-resource centers.

Finally, the office was charged with investigating misconduct and malfeasance by school administrators and educators.

The office was included in the law at the insistence of House leaders.

"It's been what we expected,'' said Rep. Kenny Rapier, a key force behind many of the law's governance changes. "We feel very proud about it. Along with the new state board, it has been one of the most visible changes the public can see.''

Many observers give Ms. Sanders much of the credit for building an office and staff able to actively shepherd the legislature's plan. Indeed, when she won the job over more than 100 applicants, no models and hardly more than the language of the law existed to guide her work.

"To say there was not a job description would imply more than was true,'' she remembered. "I didn't have a frog's idea about all of this, but knew that it was important that our oversight be clearly defined from the get-go.''

"Beyond that, I have just tried to hire the best people, give them the leverage and leeway to do their job, and get regular reporting,'' she explained.

Independence Yields Clout

Officials in the office acknowledged early turf battles with both legislative staff members and the state education department. Their role as a monitor with no executive powers also occasionally proves frustrating, but the staff of 15 has also gained clout because of its independence.

There have been criticisms. Some have faulted the office for being heavy-handed in its investigations, although the state supreme court has upheld the way it does its business.

Another complaint has been that the office has focused too much on the eastern part of the state. But defenders point out that that mountainous, insular region has long been viewed as having the most serious problems with school corruption and political interference.

Still, when aides to Gov. Brereton Jones needed answers to tough questions about education funding during the last regular legislative session, it was to the accountability office rather than the education department that they went. Moreover, lawmakers recently called on the office to monitor spending on a trouble-plagued school-technology program.

Like accomplished politicians, Ms. Sanders and others within the office also have offered private advice to both state and local officials that has quietly led to changes.

"There is a tremendous amount of power here, and it has to be used with great care, judiciously and with a sense of great fairness,'' Ms. Sanders said. "But some of the greatest power is being able to influence change quietly.''

Ms. Sanders spends some of her time, for example, overseeing a provision of the law that requires all schools to have site-based-management councils in place. Faculty votes in some schools are going against the idea, spurring Ms. Sanders to visit principals in the reluctant schools.

"I travel alone, and sometimes I just arrive at places,'' she said. "I ask the principals, 'What are you going to do as a leader of your schools to get the faculty on board?'''

'Quite a Bit of Heartburn'

Such small efforts, however, go largely unnoticed. Instead, the accountability office has become known primarily for its investigative efforts. The headline-generating operations began as soon as Ms. Sanders hired a retired F.B.I. agent as an assistant director.

Behind a door that warns away unauthorized visitors, Phil Austin and Steve Yater sit at opposite ends of a conference table, carrying on separate phone calls that blend into a confusing stream of talk amid coffee cups and ashtrays.

Investigations by the accountability office have led to administrative charges against five superintendents and 11 board members. The office recently announced it is also preparing charges aimed at removing all five board members and the board treasurer in Magoffin County.

Beyond the administrative charges, which are turned over to the state education department and ruled on by the state board, investigations have led to two indictments of school administrators and provided the grounds for several ongoing local investigations by the Kentucky State Police.

Mr. Austin, Mr. Yater, and a small team of investigators who work on contract have earned a reputation as the reform law's bouncers.

"We've caused some people quite a bit of heartburn,'' said Mr. Austin, the former F.B.I. agent. "The education-reform act really changed the way people have to do business, but some have not gotten the message yet.''

Into High Gear

Investigations are generally triggered by overlapping or repeated complaints received by the accountability office through letters or a toll-free hot line. About 85 investigative files have been opened, and many have been resolved through letters or recommendations from the office.

When a full-fledged investigation is launched, the office swings into high gear by developing extensive political and education background information on the district, examining test scores and attendance records, and building a wide range of local contacts.

"The reason we go out to any particular district is to see if the allegations are founded,'' Mr. Austin said. "We truly do not go with the idea of taking someone out.''

In too many districts, said Mr. Yater, the office's general counsel, school leaders govern without much knowledge or regard for state law.

"This isn't something that smacks of any kind of idealistic fervor,'' Mr. Yater said. "These are fundamental, known practices that people need to have to do a minimally acceptable job. That's all we ask for.''

Charges leveled by the office generally deal with misuse of school funds or an abuse of political power. In the cases involving local superintendents, two have been removed by the state board, two others have resigned, and one case is still pending.

The office is finished with its work once the charges are filed. "If someone is removed, at that point it is incumbent upon the people in the district to take control and get things back on track,'' Mr. Austin said. "All we can do is create a vacuum.''

'Reform Is Here To Stay'

Though such vacancies make news, the routine mail and phone calls that pour into the office demonstrate that many steps are taken to answer questions and mend programs before they spell trouble.

The folder full of letters on the desk of Kim Pasley, a legislative analyst, shows the broad range of issues local educators and parents are dealing with as they digest the school-reform law.

One parent's letter lists a host of complaints about a district's business practices; a mother writes that a superintendent is not helping get her child back into school; a teacher notes general disappointment that a principal has been demoted; and an anonymous writer questions a teacher's credentials.

The office will respond in some way to all of the letters within two weeks. By then, there will be a new batch of tips and queries.

Since the law was passed in 1990, officials said, the questions have not slackened.

"I've waited for the lull, but it hasn't happened,'' Ms. Pasley said. "We've gotten used to the impromptu questions, so switching gears has gotten a little bit easier, but now the complexity of the questions has increased.''

"I know they are deluged with phone calls because we still are, and we refer a quarter or a third of our calls to them,'' said Robert F. Sexton, the executive director for the Prichard Committee, a statewide citizens'-advocacy group. "This office has been critical in the early stages of this law because of the tax increase. It is important for people to know how that money is being spent.''

Beyond watching local spending and classroom results, Ms. Sanders said, the office is also aware of its part in speeding the reform effort.

"One of the things with systemic reform is the results aren't immediate, so we have to foster patience,'' she said. "And change is not without conflict, so we have to get everybody comfortable with conflict.''

"The General Assembly can pass all the reform legislation it wants,'' Mr. Yater said. "But without the ability to enforce it, it's meaningless.''

"This office is a tool for enforcement and monitoring the implementation,'' he said. "That ability to react has sent a clear message throughout the state that reform is here, and here to stay.''

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