By Lawrence Messina
Recently hired West Virginia state schools Superintendent James Phares took his oath Wednesday and vowed quick action over the next month in the wake of lagging student performance, an audit critical of the state’s education system and tumult over his predecessor’s surprise firing.
The 60-year-old veteran educator and administrator had most recently been Randolph County’s schools chief. He had asked for time to wind down his tenure there when the state board unanimously chose him last month. He was previously superintendent in Pocahontas and Marion counties.
Phares oversees a Department of Education budgeted for $2.6 billion annually that directs school systems in each of the 55 counties. These local districts together host more than 282,000 students at more than 720 elementary, middle and high schools. He arrives at the post shortly after the board embraced the bulk of a sweeping review that found the state education system heavy with state-levels staffers and policies made inflexible by laws, but light on student achievement.
Among other shortcomings, the audit noted that West Virginia students score below the national average on 21 of the 24 performance indicators reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Phares succeeds Jorea Marple, who had been hired by the board in February 2011 — also by a unanimous vote — and then dismissed in November. Lawyers for Marple wrote state officials Wednesday that she planned to sue the board alleging she was fired illegally. Two board members opposed her ouster and have since resigned.
After the board voted in December to hire him, Phares spoke of a need to reach out to the department and its officials on the heels of the hiring and the audit’s findings. Following Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony at the board’s state Capitol Complex meeting room, Phares said he’s begun that process.
“We hope to rebuild trust. We hope to rebuild communications. And above all else, we have to be open and transparent,” Phares said. He also said, “The department’s been beat up, maybe fairly, maybe unfairly.”
Phares took over from Charles Heinlein, a deputy superintendent who was asked to fill in after Marple’s firing. But the length of Phares’ tenure is unclear. Before it voted to hire him, the board agreed to ask the Legislature to ease the qualifications for the superintendent’s post in the hope of then conducting a national search for a superintendent.
The board also plans to maintain an active role as he develops his initial plans for the next 30 days, Phares said.
“The Board of Education in their wisdom have chosen to expand to the fullest extent their constitutional authority in order to help move education forward,” Phares said.