CHARLES TOWN – A local lawmaker says the Legislature will want answers about last week’s abrupt ouster of West Virginia Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple.
“The problem is, that won’t happen until after we’re in session in February,” said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, a Berkeley County Democrat who also serves on the body’s Education Committee.
By February, Marple’s firing could be the focus of a lawsuit, one filed by her or by a parent, educator or some other interested party, Unger said.
Marple had been superintendent for just 18 months on Nov. 15 when she was dismissed – effective at the end of the day – following a 5-2 vote by the state Board of Education.
Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips, the two dissenting board members, immediately vowed to resign in protest, effective Dec. 31.
Haden said she’d heard no mention of dissatisfaction with Marple prior to Linger bringing up the matter during a closed-door executive session Nov. 15.
During Marple’s job evaluation earlier this year, the board voted to award her a $2,000-a-year salary increase.
A lawsuit over the firing now seems likely, Unger said, because the state school board took up Marple’s job performance although the topic was not part of the board’s published meeting agenda as required by law.
Theresa Kirk, the executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, said last week that the handling of Marple’s dismissal likely was a violation of the state’s Open Meetings law.
Kirk told The Charleston Gazette: “You can’t add an agenda item unless it’s an emergency.” By law, such emergencies are limited to an “unexpected situation or sudden occurrence of a serious nature, such as an event that threatens public health and safety.”
But Kirk said the Ethics Commission does not have the legal authority to take any action on this or any other potential violation of the law. That would happen in circuit court, she said.
Marple, a former Kanawha County principal and schools chief who holds a doctorate in education and has written a book on school reform, was the first woman ever named to the state’s top education job.
In selecting the Sutton native in February 2011, the board passed over two other finalists: Carolyn Long, chairwoman of the West Virginia University Board of Governors, and Mark Manchin, executive director of the state School Building Authority and a cousin of former Gov. Joe Manchin.
After the Nov. 15 vote, the state board’s president – Wade Linger, a Marion County technology entrepreneur appointed to the board by Manchin – initially moved to immediately replace Marple with former Marion County Superintendent Jim Phares, now the schools chief in Randolph County.
When Haden expressed dismay that Linger wanted Phares named to the job without a search, board members agreed to hold off acting on the matter until a meeting planned for today.
According to the Charleston Daily Mail’s account of the meeting, Linger said the board would vote on Phares and suggested anyone who was not following his lead was thwarting the process.
Linger had spoken with Phares in late October to gauge his interest in the position “should it become available,” according to the Inter-Mountain in Elkins.
Phares told the Inter-Mountain that he planned to resign his job in Randolph County on Monday evening and be in Charleston to take part in the meeting today and then begin his new duties.
But earlier Monday, state schools officials said they’d now hold off on a vote on Phares until next week.
The focus of today’s meeting in Charleston is set to be the board’s long-awaited response to an audit of the school system conducted last year.
Joining Linger in voting to oust Marple were Bill White, Bob Dunlevy, Mike Green and Gayle Manchin, who was appointed to the post by her husband in 2007, a move that some at the time decried, saying it could create political complications.
White, Dunlevy and Green also were appointed by Joe Manchin, the Democrat recently elected to his first full term in the U.S. Senate.
State school board member Lloyd Jackson II, appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last year, was out of town Nov. 15 and missed the meeting.
The ninth seat on the board is vacant. Tomblin has not yet named a replacement for Lowell Johnson, a Greenbrier County educator who had served since 2004.
Johnson has raised questions about the board’s timing in getting rid of Marple. Johnson has said he would have supported Marple; his nine-year appointment to the board expired Nov. 4.
During an interview with Linger in the state board’s meeting room at the Capitol Complex amid the Nov. 15 actions, a reporter asked about the existence of a “Manchin faction” on the state board. “That’s bulls – – t,” Linger responded, according to the Daily Mail’s account. “Nobody who knows me would say such a thing.”
Linger told the reporter it was “just silly” for anyone to connect dots between himself, the four other board members who voted to fire Marple and Phares because of their ties to Marion County or Joe Manchin.
Both Unger and fellow state Sen. Herb Snyder, of Jefferson County, said the current controversy over Marple’s firing highlights what has long been a sore issue: Not one member of the state school board is from the Eastern Panhandle.
“If these two board members do resign, we would strongly suggest the openings go to representatives of the Eastern Panhandle,” Snyder said.
While Kanawha County remains the state’s largest school district, Berkeley County is second and Jefferson fifth. Berkeley alone has as many students as West Virginia’s 30 smallest school systems, Snyder points out.
Unger agrees: “The Eastern Panhandle deserves to have a member on that board. Right now, the board member closest to us is all the way in Elkins.”
— To read more about the state board of education, click here.