The Times West Virginian

November 29, 2012

State BOE made right decision in following law on open meetings

Times West Virginian

— Today, the state board of education will meet to discuss something seemingly decided on two weeks ago — whether to fire its superintendent Jorea Marple.

On Nov. 15, board members voted 5-2 to fire Marple, who has held the position for about 18 months. No specific reason has been publicly given for her dismissal, though many speculate that it has something to do with the findings of an audit of the state’s school system and the board’s reform agenda.

The vote will probably be the same 5-2. The two dissenting board members have already turned in their resignations from the BOE effective Dec. 31 because of Marple’s firing. BOE President Wade Linger has already said he wants former Marion and current Randolph County Superintendent Jim Phares to take Marple’s place. Board members have spoken publicly about the need for change and a new direction, though they have not given specific reasons why Marple had not demonstrated that capacity in the past 18 months.

But this time, the vote will be done in accordance with open meetings laws.

While we are reserving comment on Marple’s service or her firing, as strong advocates for open records and government, we believe the BOE is making the right decision to “reconsider” their Nov. 15 decision.

To “reconsider” doesn’t mean that we believe there needs to be a different outcome — there’s also another item on the published agenda to discuss her permanent replacement. The only issue is that Marple’s employment with the department of education was not an item on the Nov. 15 agenda. While open meetings laws don’t require specific items discussed in executive session to be listed on the agenda, it does require an item to be placed on the agenda in order to be acted upon.

The West Virginia Ethics Commission has said that in an emergent situation, a governing body may vote to amend the agenda to include an action item. But that didn’t happen on Nov. 15. And so it calls into question the legality of the board’s actions.

The right thing to do is to have the vote again, this time published in advance on an advertised agenda. The board is not required to speak publicly about why Marple was fired. They are not required to have that conversation during a public meeting. Because Marple is an at-will employee of the board, they are well within their rights to terminate her employment and to do so following a discussion in executive session behind closed doors and shielded from the public.

However, the board is fixing the only cause for concern — the fact that the item was neither placed on the agenda in advance nor was the agenda amended mid-meeting to make the BOE’s action above reproach.

The right thing to do is to have the vote again. No matter the outcome, this is about following the law, not the board’s decision. The board is also going one step further and allowing for public comment, which is not required.

We must commend the state BOE for going back and righting a wrong. Following the very prescribed letter of the open meetings law — as well as its spirit — may seem like many more hurdles for a governing body to clear before an action can be made but it is vital for protecting the public’s right to know.