CHARLESTON - The West Virginia Board of Education reaffirmed its decision to fire former State Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple Thursday, announcing it would delay tapping a permanent successor until an extensive nationwide search is completed.
The state board convened at the Capital Complex in Charleston amidst a crowd of more than 75 people, many of whom came to voice their anger at the board's abrupt termination of Marple at its Nov. 15 meeting.
Following a 90-minute executive session, state board members voted 6-2 to terminate Marple's employment, with state board members Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips dissenting. After a second 90-minute executive session, board members unanimously endorsed current state superintendent Chuck Heinlein - previously the state's deputy superintendent - to act in the position until its next meeting Dec. 12.
SERVING FOR NOW — State Board President Wade Linger consults with Superintendent Chuck Heinline. Heinline was appointed by the board to fill the vacancy left after the firing of former Superintendent Jorea Marple. Heinline was appointed Thursday after the state board reaffirmed the firing of Marple. Heinline will serve as superintendent until a meeting slated for Dec. 12, when another person may be appointed until a national search for a permanent replacement can be conducted. -- Anthony Gaynor
But exactly who will step in as Marple's permanent replacement remains an unanswered question. State Board President Wade Linger indicated the board would select yet another superintendent at its Dec. 12 meeting. That as-yet-unnamed person will serve on a temporary basis while the board conducts a "serious nationwide search" for a permanent superintendent of schools.
The Randolph County School Board found itself at the crux of the controversy over the legality of Marple's firing after Linger said he wanted Randolph Superintendent Dr. James Phares to be selected as Marple's replacement.
Phares told The Inter-Mountain Tuesday that the state board had requested him to be present at Thursday's meeting, saying the board would have "a review of (his) candidacy for state superintendent" at that time.
Although Thursday's agenda contained an item listed as "Oath of Office," no oath was administered, and Phares did not appear at the board meeting.
Following a nearly two-hour public comment period during which a total of 20 individuals speaking on behalf of various educational organizations sharply criticized the board's decision to fire Marple - as well as the manner in which it was done - Linger called for a motion to adjourn into executive session.
Haden - who resigned in protest after the board abruptly dismissed Marple without placing the item on the Nov. 15 meeting agenda - demanded that Linger provide a reason for the executive session.
"I've got to protest," Haden said. "I got blindsided the other day. Please state your purpose for going into executive session."
Linger replied that state law permits the board to enter into executive session to discuss personnel matters.
Board member Jenny Phillips of Elkins, who, along with Robert Dunlevy, Gayle Manchin and Michael Green participated in the meeting via telephone, made a motion to table reconsidering Marple's termination until the state Supreme Court of Appeals rules on a petition to block Marple's firing and have her reinstated.
However, the motion was defeated by a vote of 6-2.
Emerging from their first of two 90-minute executive sessions, Linger announced that Marple served at the will and pleasure of the board and it was "no longer the will of the board" to have her continue in her prior capacity. Linger again recommended Marple's termination and replacement - a recommendation that Manchin, Dunlevy, board member Lloyd Jackson and board member William White endorsed.
Haden said her vote against Marple's termination was "based on the fact that Dr. Marple is and was an excellent superintendent."
Phillips added that Marple had been in the midst of implementing the changes recommended in an audit of the state school system when board members fired her. Phillips said that, of the 129 recommendations in the audit, Marple had either instituted or been in the process of instituting 60 of them.
"(Another) 40 of them required changes in state code, 12 required board approval and 17 required governmental action or some action by the School Building Authority," Phillips said. "Jorea Marple put her best effort into making sure we were responsible for the audit."
In response to speakers' demands to know more details about why Marple had been fired, Linger cited a list of statistics pointing toward the school system's poor performance - including the fact that the statewide graduation rate is just 78 percent and that West Virginia students rank below the national average in 21 of 24 categories measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress.
"We read all of these things in the papers," Linger said. "So do our friends and family, and we hear about them in business groups, social groups and education groups. School employees hear about them. Parents hear about them. Students hear about them. They are as frustrated as we are. We are not saying that Superintendent Marple is any more responsible than governors, legislators, educators or board members for these shortcomings."
Nonetheless, board members had made several observations regarding the state department of education's operation that caused them to believe a change in leadership was necessary, Linger stated.
"Many members found no sense of urgency in the department to address some of the issues that have been outlined," Linger said. "When discussing concerns, we often were met with excuses and not actions. Too often we were told how things can't change instead of being offered solutions. And when current practices were challenged, we often found people being defensive."
Following a second 90-minute executive session during which board members considered hiring a new state superintendent, Linger announced that no decisions had been made. The board president said the board had decided to heed the advice of many speakers and conduct "a serious nationwide search" for Marple's successor.
Noting that such a search would take a significant amount of time because certain "statutory changes" would need to be made, Linger suggested the board appoint a superintendent on a temporary basis at its December meeting. Until that time, he recommended Heinlein continue as the state's superintendent - a measure that board members embraced unanimously.
Linger added that he had "learned a lot of lessons" since Marple's termination Nov. 15.
"I am just a businessman who was asked to serve on this state board," he read from a prepared statement. "I can see now why a lot of people don't want to serve in state government. I approached this matter as a lot of businessmen would, and I have now learned that you cannot always do that in the public sector."
Linger also offered a formal apology to West Virginians.
"If I have made any mistakes over the past couple of weeks," he said, "I apologize to the people of West Virginia. It was always my intent to do the best I could for the students of West Virginia."
Following adjournment, Haden said she was "very pleased" with the board's decision to stage a nationwide search.
"It's very important for us to be able to choose the most qualified person for the superintendent of West Virginia," she remarked.
At least one board member - Dr. William White - indicated that Phares was still in the running for the job.
"He's still a candidate," White said. "We didn't discuss that specifically, but I'm pretty sure that he is a person we are looking at."
Phares did not return phone calls from The Inter-Mountain as of presstime.
The next regular meeting of the state board of education will take place Dec. 12 in Lincoln County and will continue Dec. 13 in Charleston, if necessary.
(Kuba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)