State school reform debate ‘absolutely exciting,’ Combs says

CHARLESTON – Tina Combs’ first state school board meeting came the same day as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin delivered his State of the State speech, including its call for a massive overhaul for West Virginia’s public school system.

“It was absolutely exciting to hear the governor focus so much on education,” said Combs, who was appointed to the post on Jan. 18 by Tomblin. She heard Tomblin’s speech Wednesday night from a seat in the House of Delegates chamber alongside other members of the state Board of Education.

“To know that so many changes could be made this year, it’s encouraging,” she said. “I feel honored to be able to serve on the board at a time like this.”

Tina Combs

Tina Combs

Combs – the executive director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce – is the first Eastern Panhandle resident to serve on the nine-member board since late 2006.

Prior to her appointment, the Bunker Hill resident’s involvement with the state’s education system happened mainly at the local level, she said in an interview Tuesday. Her sons graduated from Musselman High School.

Her older son, who graduated from Musselman in 2006, now teaches special ed at Musselman Middle and works as an assistant baseball coach for the Applemen. Her younger son, a 2011 grad, is studying business at Fairmont State.

“In my work with the chamber, we’ve made education a priority but to be involved in the day-to-day decision making at the state level, that’s something that I’ve never had the opportunity to be a part of,” she explained.

Becoming familiar with all the issues and decisions before the board has meant lots of homework for the 47-year-old Virginia native. “Everything’s online – all the past meeting agendas and accompanying documents,” she said. “So I can be at home in the evenings with my iPad and just read and read and read to catch up.”

Combs said she doesn’t feel as if she has gotten fully up to speed just yet. “This is an enormous undertaking,” she said. “I am the first to admit I still have a lot to learn.”

Helping Combs tackle the work is the fact that she has served on a number of boards and, with the chamber, acts as an executive answering to a board. “I’ve spent years in both of those roles,” she said. “That’s been a help because I know how boards work.”

Combs, who has lived in South Berkeley since 1991, took over the chamber’s top job in May of 2004. Her own board at the chamber has been supportive of her new role, Combs said.

“I have been working very hard to keep up with all my work here,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the chamber’s board as I take on these new responsibilities.”

To fit in the extra work – and those long trips back and forth to Charleston – Combs said she may have to give up some of the volunteer positions she so enjoys. “I’d hate to do that and I’m not ready to say that’s something that will be required,” she said. “I’m still adjusting to all of this. Right now, I’m just setting aside time every day to work through everything I need to do and fit it all in.”

As she talks with teachers, parents and others in the Panhandle, Combs said she continues to hear how grateful citizens here are that the area has a voice on the state board. “I’ve heard so many people tell me how glad they are that the Eastern Panhandle again has a representative on the board,” she said.

Combs replaced Elkins resident Jenny Phillips, who resigned in December in protest over the abrupt firing of Superintendent Jorea Marple in November. Combs’ appointment – for the unexpired portion of Phillips’ term – will run until 2016.

Tomblin hasn’t yet named a replacement for Priscilla Haden, the Charleston resident who also cited the handling of Marple’s dismissal when she resigned effective Dec. 31.

Both women had voted against firing Marple, who’d been hired unanimously in 2011 and gotten a positive job evaluation and a pay raise in 2012.

Earlier this month, Marple has filed suit over her dismissal.

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