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Strides made in Virginia Cooperative Extension

BLACKSBURG

What a difference a year has made for Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Extension offices across the commonwealth are getting new field agents. Funding that had been cut for several years in a row has risen. And the General Assembly committee room where last year lawmakers grilled Virginia Tech officials about their use of extension funding no longer rings with those criticisms.

For their part, university and extension officials have made significant progress on a list of improvements recommended by Secretary of Education Laura Fornash in a report released publicly in January 2012.

Among the recommendations were more financial transparency, better communication with stakeholders and more top-level oversight of how state money was spent.

In a recent email, Fornash pointed to a new, simplified financial reporting form put in place over the past year and a new memorandum of understanding between extension and the localities it serves.

And Fornash praised a new joint annual report released recently by extension and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station.

"I've been pleased with the work to date and look forward to hearing more about the great work C[ooperative] E[xtension] is doing throughout the Commonwealth," Fornash wrote.

The recommendations came about after a now-defunct plan proposed in 2010 to restructure extension in response to General Assembly budget cuts caused widespread questioning and criticism.

The plan, created to deal with $10 million in cuts, would have slashed administrative positions in favor of expanding research and field agent positions and shored up funding for 4-H youth programs. But it would have required counties to share more resources under a new regional model.

The proposals angered local governments that help fund extension programs and caused concern in many communities that services for youth and families would be cut. Some also questioned how much funding was going to research, as opposed to traditional field services.

A legislative subcommittee was convened to address questions about extension after former employees, municipalities and others brought their complaints to lawmakers. The growing and high-pitched criticism caused Tech officials to permanently withdraw the restructuring plan.

The legislature then asked Fornash -- a former Richmond lobbyist for Tech who was appointed secretary of education in 2011 -- to investigate the concerns and issue a report on her findings.

Fornash and a working group of state budget officials, Tech administrators and advocacy groups analyzed extension funding and spending from 1996 to 2010. The subsequent report found that federal funding had dropped to a 14-year low, leaving state and local funding as the main sources of support. The report also found that more than half of extension's budget was consistently used for field services, with less than 41 percent going to research.

Lawmakers eventually returned $1.5 million to the extension budget in 2012.

The renewed support has allowed the hiring of many field agents. Today extension employs about 220 agents statewide, up from 179 last year, said Ed Jones, extension director.

Jones said he hopes to continue building the ranks to about 235, and to provide increased training and mentoring.

Fornash has praised Jones for his willingness to travel the state meeting with stakeholders and localities, as well as his work updating a memorandum of understanding between extension and the county and city governments that partner with it.

Jones said the controversy has had some positive effects, demonstrating over the past couple of years just how widely extension services are valued, and how passionate is support for it.

Extension, research, 4-H and family and consumer sciences are "needed as much today as 100 years ago, if not more," Jones said. "And we'll continue to uphold our part of the bargain."

One thing the director is clear about: "restructuring" is a dead letter. When it's mentioned, Jones waves the word away like a bad smell. Any changes to services or extension structure will come "from localities' circumstances, not by edict from Blacksburg," he said.

Extension has continued to modernize its programming, however, including implementing new technologies to reach stakeholders and develop new ones.

Since last year, the college of agriculture has worked with extension to update the most popular educational publications and then convert them to mobile device-friendly e-books, said Thea Glidden, spokeswoman for the college.

"Virtually every extension agent has an iPhone or an iPad," Glidden said.

Unlike web pages that require Internet access, e-books can be downloaded to a mobile device and used in the field without a wireless connection. So far, a total of 10 publications have been converted to e-books.

To date, downloads have been modest -- about 10 a day -- but demand is expected to grow. Research shows that more and more people across the United States are moving toward e-reading formats.

"If e-readership is doubling every year, it's going to be the preferred way to get content. We're trying to stay ahead of the curve," Glidden said.

Furthermore, e-books and other mobile-friendly content saves money on printing and mailing. And moving toward paperless extension also fits in with the university's sustainability goals.

Today nearly all Virginia extension publications are available in some electronic format.

There is still some work to do, Fornash pointed out, as the statewide Extension Leadership Council continues to redefine its mission, as recommended by the state report.

The council has more than 40 members from across the commonwealth and advises extension administrators on program needs. Each locality in Virginia may also have its own extension leadership council, and the statewide group is expected to assist them, too.

Eric Kaufman, a Virginia Tech professor and extension specialist, has served on the statewide council since 2009. He said the biggest change so far has been redefining the role of extension employees on the council from voting members to advisers and information providers.

The number of employees on the council has also been scaled back somewhat to give volunteer members more influence, Kaufman said.

The council has rewritten its bylaws to codify these changes, allowing only nonemployee members to vote on issues before the group.

Similarly, the university steering committee for extension that oversees the allocation of resources, including funding, has been revamped, said Alan Grant, dean of the agriculture college.

Provost Mark McNamee is chairman of the executive group. Deans of the colleges who make up extension and the research station -- agriculture, veterinary medicine and natural resources -- also sit on the council, as does a budget official.

"It's much more a formal process now" than in the past, Grant said. The regular meetings allow all the university stakeholders to communicate and respond to needs.

Concerns about the proper use of funding for university faculty with dual responsibilities in extension also are being addressed, Grant said.

Questions had come up before lawmakers about whether these split employees were contributing enough to extension.

Now as part of each employee's annual review, the split responsibilities are evaluated and, if necessary, adjusted, Grant said.

While things have calmed down since last January, there still are challenges ahead for extension, including uncertainty over federal budgets.

Federal funding provides about $15 million annually to extension and the state's agricultural research stations. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling and automatic cuts kick in, Virginia extension could lose $750,000, Jones said.

But Jones said he remains optimistic about the staying power of extension, which next year will turn 100 on the anniversary of the federal Smith-Lever Act that created the extension service in 1914.

If the cuts come, he said, "we'll adjust."

Read the first Virginia Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Research Station annual report at http://goo.gl/9oKWJ.  

Posted to: News Virginia

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