The West Virginia Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday night to make Randolph County Schools Superintendent Dr. James Phares the new state superintendent of schools.
After interviewing just two candidates - Phares and assistant state superintendent of schools Dr. Kathy D'Antoni - the board emerged from a 50-minute executive session and voted in favor of appointing Phares superintendent, effective Jan. 2, 2013.
He will serve on a short-term basis, while the board conducts a comprehensive, nationwide search for a new superintendent, board president Wade Linger announced at Wednesday's meeting, which took place at Lincoln High School in Lincoln County.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Katie Kuba
Board members including Lloyd Jackson, left, and Elkins native Jenny Phillips, right, take turns asking Dr. James Phares questions during his open session interview Wednesday in Lincoln County.
Phares told the state board that he would tender his resignation to the Randolph County Board of Education Monday evening.
Prior to the interviews, board member Lloyd Jackson made a motion to interview current superintendent - and former deputy superintendent - Chuck Heinlein for the position, but Heinlein declined, saying he believed he was best suited for the post of deputy superintendent.
Board president Wade Linger and other members of the board faced sharp criticism last month after they abruptly fired former state superintendent Dr. Jorea Marple at a Nov. 15 meeting and then reaffirmed that decision at a special Nov. 29 meeting, saying different leadership was necessary to change the course of the state's lagging public education system.
The Randolph County school system was thrust into the center of the controversy after the initial Nov. 15 firing when Linger said he would like Phares to succeed Marple.
At Wednesday's meeting, Linger said he would welcome nominations from any board member.
"We have a clean slate," he said.
Board member Gayle Manchin nominated D'Antoni for the position, while board member Michael Green put forth Phares' name.
Phares and D'Antoni were each given the option of interviewing in executive session or in open session; D'Antoni interviewed behind closed doors, while Phares took the podium, answering 10 questions over a span of 30 minutes from the board.
Phares was asked, among other issues, about his views on education reform in West Virginia.
"The world outside of education is moving three, four, five times faster than we are in education," Phares said. "We need the new 'three R's' - and most of you will say that's reading, writing and arithmetic, and it is, but it's also relevancy, relationships and rigor." He said students need to understand how what they're learning is relevant to their lives.
When asked about his first priorities should he be hired, Phares said he wanted to smooth over any bitter feelings lingering in the state department of education that were a result "of the process over the past month."
"There's some tremendous acrimony," he said. "One thing I want to do is talk to people about strengths and weaknesses." Phares also said he would work to "re-establish bridges with local counties and local superintendents."
"That's why I'm here," he said. "I also want to meet with the Senate and the House and talk about the board's seriousness about change (in the state education system) and begin to build support and a coalition there."
"I love this state, and I believe in every student in this state, and that's why I'm standing before you tonight," he continued.
When the board returned from executive session board member Jenny Phillips, of Elkins, made a motion to hire Phares as state superintendent on a short-term basis, which was seconded by board member Robert Dunlevy on its way to unanimous passage.
Linger said the choice had been a difficult one, noting that one rationale for the decision had been that the board believed Phares and D'Antoni would complement each other as colleagues and "make a great team."
After the meeting, Phillips said she thought it was "appropriate" that she made the motion for Phares to be hired, given her Randolph County roots.
"Within our discussion, Dr. Phares was the best candidate," she said. "He's big and bold. He's a great leader."
However, support for Phares among educational organizations was far from unanimous. During the public comment portion of Wednesday's meeting, West Virginia Educators Association president Dale Lee wanted to know why Phares seemed a shoo-in for the position.
"Just what is so magical about Dr. Phares?" Lee asked the board. "Why is no one else being mentioned or allowed an audition? Your obsession with Dr. Phares continues to put the focus on this board and its motives instead of on the students of this state." Lee said that it appeared as if Phares had been "anointed."
Phares later took issue with that description.
"Anyone who's ever been a school principal or a superintendent knows you're not anointed, you're appointed," Phares told The Inter-Mountain following the meeting. "This isn't about magic. I don't think I'm going to a better job, I think I'm going to a different job to work with a broader base of counties. I'm just a regular person who's willing to work five minutes longer to make changes happen."
Phares said that although he's been up front with the media about his interest in the state superintendent position from the beginning, he'll still be reluctant to leave Randolph County.
"I grew up in Elkins, and I came back here thinking maybe I could make a change there, and I believe I have I love Randolph County and the people there, and the students and teachers there."
Phares wouldn't disclose whether or not he'll be a candidate in the nationwide search for state superintendent, saying his primary focus beginning Jan. 2 will be on implementing an immediate and effective response to the state audit.
"I won't rule anything out," he said. "But right now, everyone needs to know our kids can do better and will do better."