Emails add to state school board firing controversy

The return of Dr. James Phares to Randolph County this week, speaking at Monday’s county Board of Education meeting, makes this an opportune time to look at what he accomplished locally, and also at the controversy surrounding the way he was hired as the interim state superintendent of schools.

Emails between Wade Linger, the president of the state Board of Education, and Phares show the two men were communicating about the possible replacement of then-Superintendent Jorea Marple for two months before she was fired. The emails were obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Linger said he asked Phares for a biography in September, but added that the idea of replacing Marple dates to the review of a March 2012 education-efficiency audit. Marple was fired Nov. 15, 2012 in a public meeting, five months after a positive performance review.

Marple is now suing the state board and demanding a hearing to confront its members about her firing. Marple is requesting a “full airing of the issues” in court, in addition to compensatory and punitive damages.

Phares and Linger worked together in Marion County, but Linger says the appointment of Phares was neither predetermined or politically motivated.

Maybe not, but even Linger was aware that their pre-firing communications might not pass the public stink test. Shortly after Marple was fired, Phares told The Inter-Mountain and other media outlets that he intended to resign as Randolph County’s superintendent. Linger then warned him by email to hold off on resigning.

“I am being told that it is a bad idea for you to take any kind of resignation action whatsoever until after the WVBOE takes official action offering you the position,” Linger wrote. “The concern is that your doing so will create the appearance that I am overstepping my authority by offering a position on my own.”

Exactly. The public should be able to safely assume that state officials are not making decisions in secret and exerting undue influence on important matters. Which is why we believe the state should fully investigate the Marple firing and the manner by which Phares was selected as her successor. Only by learning the truth about the situation can taxpayers be sure whether the process was conducted according to law and state policy.

This is not to take away from what Phares accomplished in Randolph County. He was hired by the Randolph BOE in 2009, and took over the school system when it was under scrutiny from the West Virginia Department of Education and the Office of Education Performance Audit. Phares helped lead the school system through the turmoil, and full accreditation eventually was given to the system.

He also helped spearhead the excess levy that was passed by voters in 2010. The levy was the first to pass in Randolph County since 1989.

Phares has a solid record of leadership in Randolph County, and although he was hired to serve as state superintendent on a short-term basis, signs point to the possibility that he may be in the position for quite some time.

His appearance in Randolph County Monday was part of his planned tour to speak before every county board of education in the state. That doesn’t sound like the plan of a short-term superintendent.

If Phares stays in the position for the long term, that is all the more reason to get to the bottom of his hiring and Marple’s firing now. Otherwise, a dark cloud will hang over his tenure, forever raising questions about the legitimacy of his appointment. We believe Phares, Marple and the state’s taxpayers all deserve better.