In April, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice signed a bill eliminating Regional Education Service Agencies, or RESAs, bringing an end to state-funded assistance for county boards of education.
To replace the RESAs, the West Virginia Department of Education has worked with county superintendents to create a new program which will give counties more flexibility in providing services for staff and students.
Pocahontas County Schools Superintendent Terrence Beam said he feels the new program – Education Service Cooperatives or ESCs – will be a good change for the county.
Currently, Pocahontas County is part of RESA 4 along with Braxton, Fayette, Greenbrier, Nicholas and Webster counties. Beam explained that when the legislature chose to eliminate the eight RESAs, it divided the state into four quadrants.
“We are in the same quadrant as RESA 1 schools,” Beam said. “That’s Beckley, Princeton, McDowell Coun-ty, that area. So the six counties in RESA 4 and the six counties in RESA 1 are now in the same quadrant.”
While it may seem crowded, doubling up on the number of counties working together, Beam said the relationships between the counties are good, and they all work well together.
“That quadrant works well together anyway,” he said. “We have a lot of similarities between their RESA and our RESA. We’ve got working relationships with lots of those people, so we could actually turn that quadrant into an ESC and then we could share services.”
As Beam said, the quadrants do not dictate an ESC. If only four of those counties wanted to work together for a project or to fund a program, they may form a separate ESC.
With RESAs, the programs were offered only to the counties in that specific RESA, meaning Pocahontas County could not share a program or a teacher with a county outside of RESA 4. With the ESCs, that option is possible.
“For example, if we wanted to offer some virtual classes and Raleigh County may have the facility and the instructors to offer a virtual class, they could conference call that to all the counties that wanted to participate, and we don’t have to hire any additional teachers,” Beam said. “We could offer our students those services. We divvy up a little money to provide that, and it helps them pay their costs, so they kind of share services because we can’t afford to do it on our own, but we could afford to pay a portion.”
In forming an ESC, the counties which choose to work together have to find an executive director and advisory council that are approved by all the boards of education before they can begin sharing programs.
Beam said he hopes the ESC formed by RESA 1 and RESA 4 will come together soon in order to begin the process of sharing funding and starting new programs.
“I made the recommendation at the meeting Wednesday that if indeed these twelve counties, maybe thirteen because we’re thinking about inviting Clay County to be in our group, I suggested they have a meeting of those board of education people so they could get together and share their thoughts and educate us all together on what we’re trying to accomplish here.
“Right now, RESA 1 and RESA 4 still have operating money,” he continued. “The sooner we could form this cooperative, then that money quits being spent from the state through them and the money becomes property of the ESC. So the quicker we form it, the better off we are, and we could move forward with whatever we want to do.”
Along with forming ESCs, Beam said there are also Cooperative Agreements which do not require an executive director or advisory committee – they are simply considered a “gentleman’s agreement” between the counties involved.
“We can form those with anybody in the state,” he said. “We may want to call Hancock County some time for something that they are offering. They may be offering a service that nobody else is offering around here, and we want to purchase that from them or share the cost with them.”
One issue that Beam sees with the ESCs is funding. RESAs were funded by the legislature, but now that money is gone. Instead, once the RESA money is gone, the counties are on their own with the ESCs.
“This has no trickle down money to it,” he said. “The only money we have is what they have not spent so far. After that money is expended then we have to create our own cash flow. You do that in several ways. For example, you could – like I was talking about with the virtual classrooms – a county could father that and invite everyone else to join in and pay a part of the cost that way.
“We can do grants,” he continued. “There’s still going to be things like 21st Century grants that we could seek and still keep those after-school programs operating. We have to find a way to generate money.”
One option, Beam explained, is to charge for programs which have, up to this point, been free. The alternative certification program which was founded by RESA 4 is a way for individuals with four-year degrees to get training to add a teaching certification to their credentials.
While it will no longer be free, Beam said it will still be much cheaper than going back to college to get a teaching degree.
“Let’s say we would charge somebody a thousand dollars – we wouldn’t – but let’s just say we charge a thousand dollars to gain this alternative certification,” he said. “That sounds like a lot of money. It’s not as much as going to college for four years to get a teaching degree, so that way we could sustain ourselves by making money on services that we’ve always provided for free.”
Other programs offered by RESAs that will need funding include substitute teacher training, bus driver training, fire safety training, WVEIS support and Medicaid billing.
“We have to decide which of the services we want to keep,” Beam said. “We have to decide which of those we can provide ourselves with the staff we already have or if we’re just not going to have that service.”
While there are some negative parts to losing RESAs, Beam is staying positive and said there are some up sides, as well.
With the ESC sharing policy, the county will be able to hire specialty professional services with other counties and those professionals will not count against the state aid formula.
Under the state aid formula, Pocahontas County, like all counties, receives so much funding per professional depending on the student population. If Pocahontas County receives funding for 50 professional personnel, for every professional hired over that number, it will not receive funding.
With the ESC, though, the shared professionals will not count under the state aid formula.
“I’ll use [math coach Joanna Burt-Kinderman] as an example,” Beam said. “She’s our math coach. She does a really good job for us. Let’s say Braxton County wanted to use her also, so we would hire her full-time instead of half-time. She’s half-time right now. I asked [at the meeting] if that would count against our state aid formula and they said it would not.
“So in other words, I wouldn’t have to cut another position in our county to hire a virtual schools instructor or a psychologist,” he continued. “That would be outside the formula. We don’t have to cut back teachers to some of these services. With new cooperatives and agreements, it doesn’t count against our state aid formula money.”
While it is just in the beginning stages of transition, Beam thinks the ESC will provide new opportunities for the county and help give students the best education possible.
“It is promising,” he said. “It is challenging, and it is different, but we’ve been asking for years for some flexibility. We didn’t want the state telling us everything we could do and couldn’t do. Now, we have some choices.”