The Times West Virginian

November 21, 2012

State BOE to vote again on Marple’s firing

Because of concerns board may have violated the open-meetings law

By Lawrence Messina
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s Board of Education will meet again next week to vote on Superintendent Jorea Marple’s firing because of concerns that the board may have violated the open-meetings law when it surprised many, including Marple, by ousting her on Thursday.

Board President Wade Linger said Tuesday that the board on Nov. 29 will revisit the recommendation to fire Marple. The board also will take public comment.

Linger stressed he remained “committed to my actions and recommendations regarding a new direction for education in our state,” but said the legality concerns need to be addressed. While the new agenda lists “reconsideration” of the superintendent’s termination, it also lists discussion of hiring a new state schools superintendent.

At issue is the meeting Thursday when the board voted 5-2 to fire Marple, who had been in the position for about a year and a half. The two members who voted against the recommendation — Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden — raised questions over whether the vote was legal because it was not specifically listed on the board’s agenda, although other personnel actions were outlined.

While the law doesn’t require specific items discussed in executive session to be listed on the agenda, the law does require an item to be placed on the agenda in order to be acted upon. The West Virginia Ethics Commission has previously ruled that an agenda cannot be amended during a meeting unless it is an emergency situation. That did not happen on Thursday.

Like Linger, other board members who voted to oust Marple said Tuesday that they stood behind their decision to make a change in leadership.

Board member Gayle Manchin said that the need to change the deep-seated culture at West Virginia’s public school system prompted her vote to dismiss Marple. She rose up through the ranks, serving as a deputy superintendent and Kanawha County schools chief as well as a teacher, principal and author before being appointed to the $165,000-a-year superintendent post in March 2011.

Manchin blamed a mindset at the state Department of Education— though not one shared by all there, she said — for West Virginia’s chronically poor rankings on test scores and graduation rates. She also cited the significant taxpayer investments in the public schools, including close to $2 billion this budget year. It’s one of the highest investments of education in the country, she said, but the “results certainly do not attest to that.”

“My personal opinion was based on, do we have an individual that can change the culture and the environment?” Manchin said. “In order to do that, we had to have change. It’s not personal; it’s not even about one person. It’s about culture and environment.”

Manchin also said she wants the board to send a strong signal to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature when it meets Wednesday to respond to the wide-ranging audit of the education system. The $750,000 review described a low-performing education system rigidly controlled by state bureaucrats and a host of policy-directing laws. The report includes more than 100 recommendations aimed at refocusing resources on student achievement while saving an estimated $70 million a year.

Manchin said that while some department officials have responded favorably to the audit, others have been “defensive.” She did not directly name Marple.

“My hope was that everybody would embrace it as a mechanism for providing direction and new ideas,” Manchin said. She added, “Either we could move forward with ease, or we could move forward with difficulty. In my view, it was going to take a change in direction and a change in perspective in order to move forward.”

Fellow board member Mike Green also cited the need for a new direction, but he declined to explain why he believed that required Marple’s firing.

“I’m not going to give any reasons why. We just looked at the big picture and where we were and decided it was time to make a change,” Green said. “Dr. Marple has been in that job for I believe 18 months. She serves at the will and pleasure of the board. ... The board is at the top and the people who are below that are will-and-pleasure employees, and the board said we think we want to make a change. We’re not going to give any specific reasons publicly, except it was time to make a change.”

Green said he also viewed the audit and Marple’s firing as separate issues.

Two other board members behind Marple’s ouster did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Haden and Philips have blasted the vote and vowed to resign Dec. 31 in protest.

Dozens of Marple supporters held a candlelight vigil Tuesday night outside the offices of the West Virginia Education Association in Charleston. Some called for the removal of the remaining board members and other held signs that read “Thank You Dr. Marple” and “Education Justice Now.”

WVEA President Dale Lee told the crowd that union members would attend Wednesday’s state school board meeting seeking answers to why Marple was ousted.

“Under Dr. Marple’s leadership, the direction of the West Virginia Department of Education focused on increasing student achievement and allowing teachers time to teach,” Lee said. “Now tell me, does that mean that the state board wants to go in a different direction than that?”

Marple could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

With a background in education, Manchin was appointed to the board in 2007 by her husband, then-Gov. Joe Manchin. As the state’s chief executive from 2005 until he resigned upon his election to the U.S. Senate in late 2010, Manchin appointed or re-appointed all seven board members who took part in last week’s vote.

Soon after Marple’s firing on Thursday, Linger announced that he wanted Randolph County Schools Superintendent James Phares to replace her. Phares has served as Randolph County schools superintendent since 2009, overseeing an effort to turn the school system around after the state board placed it on non-approval status and declared an emergency in December 2008. The state board lifted the state of emergency in December 2009 and restored the school system to full accreditation.

The board appointed Deputy Superintendent Charles Heinlein to succeed Marple in the interim. The board had planned to discuss a new superintendent on Wednesday, but postponed the matter until the Nov. 29 meeting so they could focus instead on the audit response.

While not weighing in on Linger’s endorsement of Phares, Gayle Manchin said she wants to revisit the superintendent’s duties before launching any national search for a permanent successor.

“I’m not necessarily saying we’re opening a national search tomorrow or the next day. I think we hire someone who assumes the role and then we carefully look at the criteria as it stands.”

The board had evaluated Marple’s performance and rated it “good” in June, according to minutes of that meeting. Marple told The Associated Press the day she was fired that the vote caught her by surprise. “I had received only words of encouragement,” she said.

Board members have been drafting proposed additions and changes to the audit since September. It will discuss those proposals on Wednesday.

“I want the governor and the Legislature to know that they have a state board that wants to work with them to set the direction and the tone for improving student achievement,” Gayle Manchin said of the board’s response.