State Department of Education officials say travel, child nutrition are current areas of focus in Upshur Schools investigation

CHARLESTON – The Accountability Officer for the West Virginia Department of Education said all documents related to potential criminal violations at the Upshur County Schools’ Central Office had originally been due to the West Virginia State Police this week. However, based on ongoing findings, that date is no longer set in stone, and evidence will be turned over as it’s discovered.

During the West Virginia Board of Education’s Aug. 9 meeting in Charleston, Jeffrey Kelley, accountability officer for the WVDE, and Upshur County Schools Superintendent Christy Miller provided the board with some updates relative to progress made since the June 14 state takeover of Upshur County Schools.

Kelley said the WVDE began working with WVSP Trooper Cpl. D.R. Wolford on June 12, and four days later, on June 16, the state department of education was served with a subpoena requesting documentation related to its investigation of the school district that was required to be submitted by Aug. 15.

“In our conversations with Trooper Wolford at that time, we decided that we would already begin to provide that documentation and allow that to remain fluid over time,” Kelley said. “So, it’s important to note here that when August 15 hits, it does not mean things will stop. We will continue our investigations, and should we secure documentation that we feel is necessary to report to him, we will continue to do that after August 15, and I confirmed that in a conversation with him that I had last week.”

Kelley said the most recent areas state evaluators are looking into are travel and child nutrition.

“Those pieces are ongoing, so we do not have findings to report at this time, but we have supplied documentation relative to those inspections to Trooper Wolford,” he said. “Mr. Pauley (Sam Pauley, WVDE School Operations Officer) supplied documentation related to travel – specifically the June 27-30, 2021, Model Schools Conference that was an addendum to the information supplied August 3.”

WVDE officials have also been in dialogue with the U.S. Department of Agriculture relative to child nutrition.

“Also on August 2, based on the early inspection of Child Nutrition in Upshur County, I think Ms. Purkey (Melanie Purkey, senior officer for WVDE’s Federal Programs and Support division) contacted the project officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Kelley said. “We subsequently had a meeting with two agents from that office, and again, those pieces are ongoing, and by the time of our next meeting, if we have findings, I will present them to the board.”

Kelley then delivered a report on Miller’s progress thus far in Upshur County Schools.

“I want to make a point here: All of this stuff that we reported out last month and this month, these corrective pieces that have been spearheaded by Superintendent Miller have taken place while they’re also trying to get ready for the opening of schools and navigating [that],” Kelley said. “So, those two things alone consume the Central Office in the summer, and then all these other things are able to be done, so I just think it’s quite the achievement that these things are getting knocked out.”

Thus far, Kelley said Miller had been working on policies to improve employee attendance and addressing overtime practices by looking at “how work hours are defined.”

“There are plans in place for employees to get their contracts and have them signed – something that seems so mundane that just wasn’t taking place, and that’s not just something you do with the wave of a wand,” he added.

Additionally, the district has advertised for a Child Nutrition and Wellness Director and hired an individual. Kelley also reported Miller and Central Office administrators have “revisited the job description for the position of treasurer,” and that position has been advertised.

Miller said reviewing policies and procedures has been especially tedious.

“Operationally, policy is a big deal,” she told the state board. “Each time we open the supposed policy manual that’s in place, we do find outdated policy, outdated language.”

Miller reported she had planned a gathering at Buckhannon-Upshur High School for all personnel before the opening of schools.

“I’m a believer that I have to go in with enthusiasm and confidence in them that we’re all there to do the job we were hired to do, which is to support our students in improving their outcomes,” she said.

Stephen Wotring, retired Preston County superintendent of schools who took over immediately after the state seizure, continues to assist Miller and Assistant Upshur County Schools Superintendent Russ Collett. He told the state board that he had given administrators at each school a schedule of ‘data meetings’ that would take place throughout the school year.

“We will look at not just achievement data, which has obviously got to be a focus, but we’re also going to be looking at culture, so we’re looking at staff attendance, which speaks a lot about our culture, we’re looking at student attendance,” Wotring said. “We’re going to be putting all of that data together, initiating walk-throughs so that we know what’s happening within our classrooms and how you look at that data, how you compile that data and how you develop a plan moving forward from that data.”

Board of Education member Dr. Debra Sullivan asked Miller about the community’s response to what’s happening, and Miller said she has been fielding many questions and does plan to reinstitute a community-wide forum through which people can share their concerns and offer solutions.

“We are going to run the excess levy in May, so I need the community to understand that we are taking corrective action so that they can have trust and understanding about fiscal responsibility and what that looks like, and we’re going to move forward each day following the rules,” Miller said. “I think it’s going to be essential each day because I do see [trust] growing each day that we open our doors for people to come in and talk.”

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