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W.Va. Leaves District Better Than It Found It

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West Virginia has relinquished the reins of a struggling school system, leaving behind a rare state-takeover success story: a state-hired superintendent in charge of a system with higher test scores and better management and buoyed by local acceptance.

The state school board last month ended its oversight of the Logan County district, granting the local school board power to direct curriculum and personnel for the first time since 1992. Last year, the state board returned control over budget and the school calendar to the local board.

Student test scores rose dramatically and the dropout rates fell in the county's three high schools under the state's supervision. In addition, the 7,100-student district cleaned up an administrative mess that had left almost a third of its teachers uncertified.

"It's a great success story," said Henry Marockie, the state's superintendent of schools. "It shows how a takeover can be very successful and doesn't have to become embroiled in court proceedings."

The state's control met some local opposition in the rural, coal-mining area, but in the end avoided much of the acrimony that has defined many other states' attempts to improve wayward school districts. ("Ill Will Comes With Territory in Takeovers," June 12, 1996.)

West Virginia succeeded in Logan County because the state board kept the local board in place, albeit with reduced powers, Mr. Marockie said. The state board oversaw Logan County's personnel, curriculum, budget, and school calendar, leaving the locally elected officials with lesser tasks such as transportation and maintenance.

Looking back, Mr. Marockie said last week that any attempt to strip the local board members of their offices would have detoured the process. "That's five years of legal cases," he said.

Goodwill between the state and local officials is an important lesson from Logan County, one school-policy analyst said. "It depends on how the state approaches it with the district," said Kathy Christie of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Creating Harmony

"There are a lot of people who wanted to make this thing a success," said John Myers, the Logan County superintendent the state hired to manage the system.

But the state's control was not without opposition.

"It was a takeover that wasn't necessary," argued Don Elkins, a former band director at Logan High School who now owns a music store in town. "Once it was done, there wasn't much we could do about it."

Logan County became the first West Virginia school district to relinquish control under a 1988 law giving the state board of education "complete supervision" over troubled local districts. The state has not used the power again.

The state board took action after a surprise inspection uncovered an administrative nightmare to go along with the county's consistently lagging test scores and a history of poor attendance.

About a third of Logan County's teachers did not have the proper certification, mostly because applications teachers filed with the local schools had not been forwarded to the state. Inspectors found a box of the applications under the personnel director's desk.

State auditors also discovered the county had overbilled the federal government by $600,000 for special education expenses, a cost local officials were required to repay.

Immediately after taking over, the state board fired Cosma Krites, the superintendent and former personnel director, and hired Mr. Myers, the superintendent in Marion County, W.Va.

A New Approach

The close-knit community needed an outsider to come in with an objective view and shake things up, said Lou Capaldini, a resident who supported the takeover.

Previous superintendents had grown up in Logan County and sometimes failed to make tough decisions. "How do you fire your Sunday school teacher?" Mr. Capaldini asked.

One year after the takeover, the state board set specific goals Logan County had to meet before the state would return decisionmaking powers to the local board.

By last year, test scores jumped. Third graders' achievement on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills rose from the 50th percentile to the 69th. Attendance improved, and budget problems were corrected.

Recent improvements in lowering dropouts and upgrading teacher evaluations led the state board to vote last month to return control to the local managers.

The school district will now be monitored every five years, the same as any other district.

"It went so much more positively than I thought it would," said Mr. Myers, who the local board signed for two more years. "I felt an urge to stay on and see it through."

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