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Questions still to be answered about decision

November 20, 2012
The Inter-Mountain

It appears the dust has not yet settled after the state Board of Education's sudden - and unexpected - 5-2 decision to fire state school Superintendent Jorea Marple late last week.

We don't think many outside of the state board saw this coming, especially not a stunned Marple or the two dissenting members, Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips, who resigned their posts in protest. Despite the secrecy, it appears at least a few outsiders - including one local education leader - had a glimpse at the playbook for this blindside.

Caught up in the drama is our own James Phares, superintendent of Randolph County schools. He has been named by state Board of Education President Wade Linger as a top candidate to replace Marple.

In fact, Phares indicated in a recent interview with The Inter-Mountain that he planned to tender his resignation at Monday's Randolph County board meeting in response to being approached about the vacancy. Further, it is a potential job opening he admitted had been discussed with him prior to Thursday's vote by the state board.

The manner in which Marple was terminated - and questions about who knew what when - drew speculation and some criticism from across West Virginia. Perhaps that is why the state board and Phares are backpaddling from the murky waters created by the aggressive timeline that had been set forth for naming Marple's replacement.

Linger shifted the focus of tomorrow's special meeting from Phares to the board responding to the state's Office of Education Performance Audits. For his part, instead of resigning Monday, Phares offered the following statement:

"The state board wants to focus on the audit response at the Nov. 21 (Wednesday) meeting. As such, they have posted a special meeting to take place next week to revisit the hiring of a new state superintendent of schools. I believe it would be more appropriate for our Randolph County Board of Education to wait on direction from the state board before taking next steps. I remain humbled that I am even being considered for the position of state superintendent of schools."

Phares has stated publicly that he will accept the state position if it is offered. We stand behind his record of leadership here in the county and believe he would be an excellent choice for the position. What we know - that many in West Virginia may not - is the state board placed the Randolph County school system on non-approval status in 2008. This was the result of wide-sweeping deficits in management, hiring practices, finances and the condition of our schools' facilities. This prompted a state of emergency and a threat by the state to take over education in the county if immediate corrective action didn't occur.

Phares was hired as superintendent in 2009 and was the driving force behind the mandated action. He was so successful at righting the ship that the county board renewed his contract in 2010 with a new four-year deal. And it included a special clause: either party could end the arrangement by providing a two-week notice.

Perhaps that was foreshadowing, as it appears Phares' notice is forthcoming. The future of education in Randolph County once again may hang in the balance without him at the helm. Why? Phares has made significant progress here: There was the passage of the levy in November 2010; the improvements made to many schools within the district; and the fulfillment of a promise to demolish the unsafe structure that once had been Elkins High School.

In our neck of the woods, Phares has been a visionary who has produced results and lived up to his word. Now we worry he's someone with his neck stuck out in the crosshairs of a political hunting season that doesn't appear to have ended on Election Day.

We see three injustices here:

No. 1, Marple, though she served the state board at will, had a right to know why she was removed from her position.

No. 2, taxpayers are entitled to that information as well, as the board - by extension -is put in place to represent citizens' best interests.

No. 3, Phares, who under any other circumstances is a qualified candidate, may face unfair opposition and criticism because of how the state board chose to make this change in course.

We must remind these remaining state board members that our children's educational future is at stake here. We don't take that lightly, and neither should they. Nor do we believe people should be dropped like one would an errant class from a schedule.

Everyone involved in this situation - Marple, the children her office represents, our state's citizens and Phares - deserved more. Until key questions are answered, all affected parties will be left wanting.



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