In 2009, Dr. James Phares stepped into the role of superintendent of schools in Randolph County. The county system was facing potential takeover from the West Virginia Board of Education because of deficiencies outlined in an audit from the Office of Education Performance Audits. As Phares looks forward to taking over as the state's chief of schools, he is facing similar issues.
Phares was hired as West Virginia Superintendent of Schools on Dec. 12 and officially ends his service to Randolph County tomorrow. He will assume his duties in Charleston Wednesday.
Phares said his top priority in his new job will be tackling an educational audit that outlines several deficiencies in the state's school system.
"First and foremost will be to take the audit call to action and follow the board's priorities to tackle the audit," Phares told The Inter-Mountain this week. "The board priorities will become my operational goals."
When Phares took over the reins in Randolph County, the school system was facing sharp criticism from the West Virginia Board of Education from deficiencies outlined in the OEPA audit. The state declared a state of emergency in the local school system and could have taken it over if corrective action was not taken.
Phares said he will take a similar approach at the state level to what he did regarding the OEPA audit in Randolph County. He said once the state board develops their priorities, he will create an action plan to correct the issues.
"I spent two days in Charleston meeting with folks in the (West Virginia) Department of Education," he said. "We looked at redevelopment and repurposing the WVDE."
Phares said one of the first things he hopes to do is to meet with all the county superintendents in the state.
"We are going to sit down and talk about the issues we are facing," he said. "One of my goals is get into every county board meeting in the state for a question-and-answer session. I want to reinvest the local boards into the system. We can do better."
Phares said he foresees a cultural change in the WVDE, much as he said the culture of the Randolph school system has changed.
"When I came into Randolph County there was a negative perception about the school system," he said. "There is a similar perception with the WVDE."
Phares said having the stakeholders face reality is one of the first big steps in changing the negative perception.
"We share leadership across different lines," Phares said. "You have to build a constituency."
Phares said he wants to meet with the governor's office and the legislative bodies in the state to begin working on changing the state school system to meet the audit requirements and to improve education in the state.
"I think the time is right for change in West Virginia," he said.
Phares will be serving as superintendent as the state board launches a nationwide search to look for a long-term replacement.
"I have not had any role defined for me in the search," he said. "The board wants to change the conditions for a national search. It will require a code change."
Phares said one of the things that possibly hurts the national search is that West Virginia law sets a cap on the salary for the position.
"There will have to be legislative code changes," he said. "In the last decade there have been two attempts to change the code that both failed."
Phares said he enjoyed his time in Randolph County.
"I think it is my last stop as far as public education," Phares said. "I've loved my time and experience here. I've really admired the students', teachers' and parents' efforts to make changes in Randolph County."
Phares said the community rallied around the school system and several partners made it possible to make improvements. He said the partnerships were key to the passage of the excess levy in 2010.
"It was a critical juncture for Randolph County Schools to become successful," he said. "There were a lot of parents that felt deeply about it. They got to pick what was in it."
Even though he is leaving the county to take the state position, Phares said he will continue to support the local system.
"I will personally continue to support Randolph County schools even if it is from a different place," he said.