Study Assails Planning, Pace of Effort to Revamp Va. Agency

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A groundbreaking effort to reorganize Virginia's education department has been marred by poor planning, hasty action, and a drop in employee morale, investigators for a state legislative panel have concluded.

A study released by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission last month agreed that significant changes were needed to revitalize the education department and trim its bureaucracy. But it argued that department officials have moved too quickly to carry out the reorganization since launching their effort in September.

Those in charge of overhauling the agency "have not been realistic in terms of the timetable they have established and the sweeping nature of the changes they are trying to implement," asserted Robert B. Rotz, chief legislative analyst for the commission.

Mr. Rotz noted that the panel's report evaluated the reorganization at a mid-point, adding that "a lot remains to be seen" about how it will work. Nevertheless, he voiced doubts that major problems in the reorganization effort could be corrected before Feb. 1, the department's self-imposed deadline for having the new system in place.

The Virginia reorganization--which also seeks to shift the mission of the department from regulation to research and service--is widely regarded as the most sweeping of a growing number of efforts by states to rethink the basic role and structure of their education agencies. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1990.)

Despite the criticism, Secretary of Education James W. Dyke Jr. and other Virginia officials said the report vindicated their desire to bring about change, adding that they plan to continue with the agency reorganization essentially as planned.

"Where they raised questions, they had to do with timing," Mr. Dyke said. "When you are making changes of this magnitude, you need to move quickly," he argued. "It is best not have people hanging out there wondering what their futures are going to be."

"The understanding here is that the report did not tell us anything we did not already know," added a department spokesman, James E. Foudriat, who maintained that several of the problems cited in the report already have been corrected.

The review commission, which consists of 14 lawmakers, had been directed by the legislature to examine the education department last spring, well before the reorganization effort began.

Previous audits of the department by its staff and by an outside accounting firm had found the agency to be inefficient, excessively bureaucratized, and low in morale.

In response to these findings, Superintendent of Public Instruction Joseph P. Spagnolo on Sept. 5 gained the backing of the state board of education to undertake a thorough overhaul. (See Education Week, Sept. 19, 1990.)

Pledging to "put [the existing department] in a box, wrap a bow around it, and bury it," Mr. Spagnolo said he planned to give the agency a new name--the Center for Educational Leadership--and a new mission that no longer focused on monitoring district compliance with state regulations.

The new agency, Mr. Spagnolo said, would be devoted to policy analysis, research dissemination, and providing consultation, staff development, and other services to local districts.

The plan called for elimination of about one-fifth of the jobs within the agency, for a savings of about $672,000, or 3.3 percent of personnel costs, and for the department's eight organizational layers to be reduced to four.

But surveys of department personnel conducted by the legislative-review panel's staff found that Mr. Spagnolo had caused morale to plummet by pledging to "bury" the agency and describing it as "battered, confused, and lacking focus."

Moreover, although 70 percent of employees surveyed said the agency needed to be reorganized, only 21 percent said they had been provided by their superiors with sufficient and timely information about the reorganization effort. Many also said they viewed department officials as insensitive to their anxieties about applying for new jobs or being laid off.

"The reorganization has worsened agency climate and employee morale, at least in the short term," the report said.

The legislative commission concluded that department officials are trying to accomplish the reorganization too quickly, especially in seeking to fill 200 newly created positions.

The panel's report also indicated that:

Key employees have not been adequately involved and affected agencies have not been consulted during the reorganization process. In addition, plans for the department to assume certain functions from other agencies were being carried out without the approval of the legislature, as required by law.

Open positions in the deparment have been advertised prematurely.

The department has made plans to station regional field representatives at colleges and universities without prior approval from the institutions.

The $672,000 in estimated savings from the reorganization is less than would be expected from an agency change of such magnitude.

The department leadership had to abandon its previous reorganization deadline of Jan. 1. Plans to change the department's name were dropped in response to concerns expressed by members of the legislature.

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