The decision of the West Virginia Board of Education to fire State Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple took many by surprise Thursday and could mean changes for Randolph County Schools. The firing led to two state board members announcing their resignations and the possibility of Randolph Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Phares being hired to fill the vacancy left by Marple.
The board met a second time Thursday and appointed Deputy Superintendent Charles Heinlein to replace Marple pending a Nov. 21 meeting to choose a long-term hire. Board President Wade Linger announced that he wants Phares for the job.
"(Judging) from the press release from the board, they are going to nominate me," Phares told The Inter-Mountain Thursday evening. "If I am approved, I will take the position."
Phares said he would meet with his staff in Elkins at 10 a.m. this morning.
Phares spoke by phone from Charleston, where he was attending the state Exemplary Schools Banquet, where Pickens School and the Randolph County Technical Center were honored.
Linger is from Marion County, where Phares formerly was the superintendent of schools.
"He did a great job in Marion County when he was there and now he's doing a great job in Randolph County," Linger told The Charleston Gazette Thursday. Linger said in a prepared statement that the board believes the state's public school system needs new direction.
"Dr. Marple's concern for and commitment to West Virginia's schoolchildren is well known. She has served them with distinction, and we appreciate her public service. However, the West Virginia Board of Education believes this is a time for a change in direction. As such, we think it is important for new leadership," Linger said.
Marple said in a telephone interview that she was surprised by the decision.
"I had received only words of encouragement," she said.
She said she had tried as superintendent to identify issues, including ways to fund schools.
"My heart, my soul and my being are with teachers and children and I hope to continue to be an advocate for meeting the needs of the children," she said.
House Education Chair Mary Poling said she was shocked at word of Marple's firing. The Barbour County Democrat credited Marple for addressing curriculum standards and overseeing a new way to measure student performance while responding to the governor's call to trim the state budget.
"I think she was doing a good job," said Poling, a retired educator. "I found no problems with her work... I would like to know why they did that, and know of no reason why they would."
Marple's firing comes as pressure mounts on the Legislature and other officials to act on a recent audit of West Virginia's public schools. Commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the wide-ranging review describes a low-performing education system rigidly controlled by a state-level bureaucracy and a thick stack of policy-directing laws.
"The kids, the teachers and service personnel across the state will feel the effects at a time when we can ill afford it," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the state's School Service Personnel Association said that board members had told them in recent months of a rift over the audit between the department and some board members.
"Based upon these conversations with state board members, we have no evidence that Dr. Marple's dismissal was politically motivated, but rather (was) based upon philosophical differences," the groups said in a joint statement.
Leaders of the two groups, which together represent about 16,000 people in the school system, said they were also surprised by the abruptness of the firing and troubled that it happened without any public discussion.
"I'm certainly dismayed by the manner in which they have done this," AFT-WV President Judy Hale told The Associated Press, adding that the firing and the two resignations leave a leadership void with no indication of how it will be filled.
Lee's group represents both teachers and administrators. He also was surprised by the firing of Marple, whom he called a strong advocate for students, teachers and service professionals. He also said he was appalled by the manner in which the board handled her firing, without warning.
"Dr. Marple has done a great job in her short tenure as superintendent," Lee said. "It was completely out of the blue to me. Dr. Marple is widely respected, not only by her peers but by education employees around the state."
Marple had served as the state's schools chief since March 1, 2011, and previously served as deputy superintendent. Her husband is Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who lost a bid for a sixth term in the Nov. 6 general election.
Phares was hired by the Randolph County Board of Education in 2009.
Phares took over the school system when it was under scrutiny from the West Virginia Department of Education and the Office of Education Performance Audit. An OPEA audit outlined several deficiencies in the school system that could have led to a take over of the local school system by the state. Phares helped lead the school system through the turmoil, and full accreditation was eventually given to the local school system.
Phares also helped to spearhead the excess levy that was passed by voters in 2010. The levy was the first to pass in Randolph County since 1989.
Prior to Randolph County, Phares served as superintendent in Marion County from 2003 to 2009 and prior to that was the superintendent in Pocahontas County from 1998 to 2003. In 2007, Phares was named West Virginia Superintendent of the Year and in 2008 he was one of four finalists for National Superintendent of the Year.
In 2010, the Randolph County Board of Education signed Phares to a four-year contract.