Staff and Wire Reports
CHARLESTON - West Virginia schools Superintendent James B. Phares announced his retirement Tuesday after only 15 months on the job, an unexpected move that disappointed some who hoped he'd stick around to lead a department whose policies had come under heavy scrutiny by a wide-ranging audit.
Phares didn't give a reason in his letter to state Board of Education President Gayle Manchin behind his decision to retire at the end of the fiscal year June 30. But Manchin said the announcement came the same day that an Iowa firm was hired to conduct a national search for Phares' replacement.
"The fact that it came today, yes, we weren't expecting it," Manchin said. "But we weren't surprised that he would be doing this."
With the search firm's hiring, Phares "could go ahead and start thinking about what he wanted to do," Manchin said.
The length of Phares' tenure was unclear at the time he officially took office in January 2013. While he didn't carry the interim tag, the state board had agreed to search for a long-term superintendent. Phares had said he supported that decision.
"Dr. Phares was not a placeholder," Manchin said. "He was a very actively engaged superintendent, which is what we wanted him to be."
In his letter, Phares thanked the board for the opportunity to serve the state's students, parents and teachers.
"I will always cherish my opportunity to have done so," Phares wrote. "I have often told people this is the hardest job I have ever loved."
Phares, who didn't immediately return a telephone message, was the superintendent in Randolph County when the state board hand-picked him for the superintendent's position a few weeks after it ousted Jorea Marple in November 2012.
Randolph County Schools Superintendent Terry George said he will miss Phares, whom he succeeded in the superintendent's chair.
"I am going to miss his leadership and his skill, which successfully guided the state board," George said. "I will also miss his friendship and guidance. He was my mentor for four years and was someone I respected."
George said Phares' retirement will be a tremendous loss for the state of West Virginia.
"I wish him the very best for whatever he selects in the next chapter of his life," George said.
The state superintendent serves at the will and pleasure of the board. Phares oversaw a Department of Education with a $2.6 billion annual budget that directs school systems in the state's 55 counties.
Phares arrived shortly after the board embraced the bulk of a sweeping review that found the state education system heavy with state-level staffers and policies made inflexible by laws, but light on student achievement.
In the 2013 session, the Legislature approved a wide-ranging education reform package that called for more local control for county school boards, increased third-grade reading proficiency and other changes.
The bill's passage came as a result "of the guidance of where the board and the superintendent were going," said Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "I thought he did a remarkable job of communicating with the Legislature and fulfilling that role."
Plymale was disappointed by Phares' announcement.
"I really have enjoyed working with him and wish he would stay," Plymale said, also citing Phares' work to beef-up vocational and career technology education statewide.
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said Phares didn't mention retirement to him when the pair talked last month at a state basketball tournament in Charleston.
"Personally, I believe it needs to be someone as experienced in West Virginia, knows our schools, and has the desire to move education forward," he said.
Department of Education communications office secretary Christine Galusha said the board is expected to address the resignation at its next meeting April 9.
Phares is the second straight state schools superintendent to spend less than two years on the job.
Marple served a year and nine months when the board cited lagging student performance and a desire to "head in a new direction with new leadership." Board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden, who voted against Marple's firing, resigned a month later.
Marple sued the state Board of Education in February 2013, claiming she was denied due process and that board members secretly plotted to oust her. It also alleged the handling of the dismissal wrongly damaged Marple's reputation. The lawsuit is still tied up in court.