By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia Board of Education members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden have resigned, following through on vows prompted by the abrupt firing of Jorea Marple as state schools superintendent last month.
Phillips and Haden each sent a letter Thursday to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The two had dissented when the board voted Nov. 15 to dismiss Marple, who was then told to clear out her office that day.
Praising Marple’s credentials and performance, Phillips and Haden each expressed outrage following the firing and said then that they would leave the board.
“I just abhor the method that they used in firing Dr. Marple,” Haden, a Kanawha County resident and retired educator, told The Associated Press on Friday.
Phillips wrote that she “can no longer serve on the Board that shows such a lack of regard for a person’s reputation and livelihood.”
The board had unanimously selected Marple — a veteran educator, administrator and author — in February 2011 after a search and interview process. In the wake of her ouster, the board issued a statement that referred to lagging student performance and a desire to “head in a new direction with new leadership.”
That statement also said the board was not assigning blame for the state’s poor education rankings and that Marple was no more responsible than “governors, legislators, educators or board members for these shortcomings.”
“Whatever the true reason for their action I may never know, but their action displayed a lack of caring or consideration for Dr. Marple,” Phillips, of Randolph County, told Tomblin. “She had devoted her life to education and with an illegal action destroyed any further achievement she may have made for children.”
The board had not included taking action on Marple in its Nov. 15 agenda, and a pending court challenge filed by school parents alleges that it violated the state’s open-meeting law. The board held a follow-up meeting later that month, posting an agenda that included discussion of Marple, and again voted to fire her amid concerns about complying with state law.
Marple said her ouster took her by surprise, telling the AP at the time that she had received only encouragement from board members.
Haden said she’s asked Tomblin to choose someone from the Eastern Panhandle, which is leading the state for population growth, for her seat. She also expressed thanks for her near-decade on the board. Her term was to expire next year.
The term of Phillips, who was appointed in 2007, expires in 2016. A former longtime U.S. Department of Agriculture official, Phillips wrote that she hoped the board would continue her focus on children living apart from their parents.
The board voted earlier this month to hire James Phares as superintendent.
Endorsed by Board President Wade Linger within hours of Marple’s firing, Phares has been schools chief in Pocahontas, Marion and, most recently, Randolph County. He steps down from that job to take the state post Wednesday. But the board has also called on the Legislature to scale back the job’s qualifications, with plans to then conduct a national search for a long-term superintendent.
The board’s wrangling over the superintendent’s job has taken place in the shadow of a wide-ranging audit that contrasted low student achievement with the estimated $3.2 billion that West Virginia spends annually on its public schools. After firing Marple, the board embraced the bulk of the audit’s recommendations, which include tackling inflexible state education laws and a bureaucrat-heavy system that auditors considered largely unique among the states.