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Extension restructuring on track

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 07 - October 10, 1996

Virginia Cooperative Extension's year-long restructuring effort has led to an increased focus on the agency's original mission, increased outside funding, and a streamlined administration, according to Extension Director C. Clark Jones.

Jones reported to state officials Tuesday on the progress made on a restructuring plan unveiled a year ago. Jones said improvements have been made in every category in the plan, including strengthening ties to local governments and investing in information technology.

Beverly Sgro, state secretary of education, Elizabeth McClanahan, chair of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, and several state legislators heard Jones' report. They were on campus for the presentation by Sgro of a proclamation from Gov. George Allen declaring this week 4-H Week.

"This hasn't been an easy process, but because of the commitment of everyone within Virginia Cooperative Extension, we are on track," Jones said. "I'm pleased with the efforts being made throughout the organization, and I'm pleased with the progress that we've made to date."

The restructuring was in response to several years of budget cuts that left the agency with a shrunken state budget and a network of agents state-wide one-third smaller than in 1989.

Virginia Cooperative Extension is the educational outreach arm of Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. It has programs in agriculture, family and consumer science, and 4-H youth development delivered from 107 offices around the state. It provides practical, research-based knowledge to the people of the state to improve the quality of life and to advance economic development.

"The workload certainly hasn't gotten any smaller, but because we've stepped back and put a lot of thought into this, we've come up with some good ways to accomplish our mission despite reduced resources," Jones said.

The agency's plan to focus more tightly on its original mission, including agriculture at the local level, has resulted in 14 new agricultural agents hired or in the process of being hired. In addition, key 4-H and family-and-consumer-science vacancies are being filled.

Jones said Extension is the only comprehensive and systematic method of providing research-based information to all aspects of Virginia's $35-billion agriculture industry. He said increased attention to the industry is justified because agriculture employs one-sixth of the state's workforce and it produces one-sixth of the state's economic activity.

Outside funding has been increased primarily though increased reliance on grants. One such grant brought in $750,000 during the last federal budget year. The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was awarded to start a program to teach food-stamp recipients budgeting and nutrition skills so the stamps are used for more nutritious meals.

Jones said grants cannot be relied on to replace a significant amount of state funds because grants are usually for funding very specific programs for a limited length of time.

To increase ties to local governments, Extension has established Extension Leadership Councils to facilitate the flow of information between the agency and local communities. The councils help keep Extension programs responsive to local issues and needs.

The Extension administrative structure was streamlined, with a 40-percent reduction in the number of administrators. With just one level of administration between the director and the field offices, Jones said the administrative support structure is "about as lean as I think we can make it."

Extension was given a boost when it was authorized to use money saved through an early-retirement program to design of a state-of-the-art information-technology system and to provide training to agents to ensure they can effectively use the system. In addition, that money also allowed critical agent positions to be filled.

"We are an information-based organization," Jones said. "We're in the business of education and providing information. Computers and sophisticated information-technology systems allows us to do that much more efficiently. Every field office can now almost instantly tap into the wealth of knowledge that is produced by our land-grant universities."