The Richmond Register

April 2, 2009

OEA not well known, often not welcome news

Ronnie Ellis

FRANKFORT — It’s not a well known government agency, but when the Office of Education Accountability visits a school district, it’s often not welcome news.

That is because such visits usually are the result of complaints that the district or its board of education violated some governance mandate of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act which established OEA.

The agency is not attached to the Kentucky Department of Education, but instead answers to the legislature. It was created to ensure schools operate efficiently and effectively and observe the decentralized governing procedures created by KERA. Those removed board members from any hiring decisions except for the superintendent and created Site-Based Decision Making Councils, which hire principals who in turn — in consultation with the SBDM — hire school building staff.

OEA also makes annual reports to the legislature which include data on enrollment, finance and other areas of management of all 174 districts. It suggests changes in legislation to lawmakers as well.

“They’ve done a very good job,” said Rep. Harry Moberly, D-Richmond, one of the lawmakers who has been in the legislature since KERA was passed. “We get confidential information from them on their investigations and I have always found them to be very effective and I have been well satisfied with their work.”

Marcia Ford Seiler, OEA director, said the agency usually averages about 60 open investigations at any given time. In 2008, the agency opened 68 cases and closed 67 of them. The investigations are divided into two categories, Seiler said. One is investigations which involve complaints of inappropriate hiring processes, inappropriate involvement in hiring by board members or the superintendent or board member conflicts of interest. The other category usually involves mistakes in hiring procedures by SBDM councils.

Most are prompted by complaints from board members or district personnel, but also can be submitted by private individuals. They are often submitted anonymously through an on-line complaint form (http://www.lrc.ky.gov/oea/form.htm or a telephone hotline at 1-502-564-8167 or 1-800-242-0520.

“Once we determine a complaint is worth investigation,” Seiler said, “we visit the district, interview people and review documents. Then we come back and write a preliminary report which includes finding of fact and conclusions.”

The draft report is given to the local persons who are subjects of the complaint for response and eventually OEA produces a final report which is available publicly.

OEA can even suggest removal of board members as it did a couple of years ago in Lawrence County, according to Seiler. That investigation involved inappropriate employment procedures and OEA recommended removal to the Kentucky Department of Education. But the commissioner at the time, Gene Wilhoit, decided instead to put together a management assistance team which worked with the board and no board members were removed.

Lisa Gross, KDE spokeswoman, said no board members have been removed in Kentucky since the mid-1990s. She said such tough OEA recommendations are typically referred to the Education Professional Standards Board or the Attorney General’s Office.

“Generally, we point out the error and help them fix it,” she said of OEA recommendations to local boards.

Moberly would like to see the OEA given more enforcement authority in such cases. But he said OEA findings are usually effective even without additional enforcement power.

“No school district likes for OEA to come in,” Moberly said. “So when OEA makes suggestions, the district usually feels they have to follow them.”

David Baird, associate executive director of the Kentucky School Boards Association, said most local board members know about OEA and many times it is a board member who contacts OEA with concerns about a district management issue. He said he would like to see OEA provide more informational sessions for local board members to increase their knowledge of governance laws and the operations of OEA.

He said KSBA’s involvement usually takes the form of professional development assistance to correct problems identified by OEA.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. He may be reached by e-mail at rellis@cnhi.com. The Richmond Register is a CNHI newspaper.