School Board’s Plans a Puzzle

This hasn’t been a good month for West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple. First, on Nov. 6, voters ousted her husband, Darrell McGraw as state attorney general, a post in which he’d seemed secure for many years. Then, on Thursday, Marple lost her job as state superintendent of schools.

Marple was axed in a surprise move some said was linked to McGraw’s loss.

Well, the McGraw clan for years ran one of the most powerful political machines in West Virginia. Some legislators were afraid of Darrell McGraw. So I suppose it’s possible the five state board members who voted to can Marple thought now, with her husband’s power in the Capitol crushed, would be a good time to get rid of her.

Some observers speculated the termination was political, with former governor and now U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s faction behind it. The senator’s wife, Gayle, is a state board member, after all. And she voted with the majority to fire Marple.

That would appear to be nonsense. What does Manchin gain from having Marple fired? Nothing, except a few more enemies. Smart politicians don’t make new foes unless there’s a compelling reason to do so, and no one ever accused Manchin of being a dummy.

Until Thursday, I hadn’t heard of any complaints against Marple. Not long after she became state superintendent in March 2011, she was the topic of a “Sunday Sit-Down” piece in the Sunday News-Register. She outlined a vision for public school reform that seemed appealing.

For reasons as yet unexplained (see the editorial to the left of this column), five members of the state board seem to believe Marple isn’t the person to lead such reform. Two others were upset enough about the decision to fire her that, after voting against it, they resigned.

Also for reasons not mentioned, the five members seem to think it would be a good idea to hire Randolph County schools Superintendent James Phares to replace Marple. The vote to do so – without any sort of search for the best person to lead state schools -could come as soon as next week.

Now, I’m sure Phares is a fine educator. And these days, just to hang in there as a county school superintendent requires a good bit of leadership ability.

But what’s so special about him? He took the top job in Randolph County schools at a time when education affairs there were such a mess the state board considered taking over the system, as it has done in several other counties. Reportedly, Phares is well-liked in Randolph County and has improved schools academically – though there still is much to do in that regard.

This emphatically is not a shot at Phares. He may be liked in Randolph County and known in Marion, where he also worked, but most West Virginians know nothing about him. So why do some state board members like him so much? Why was the plan to fire Marple and hire him hatched secretly, then sprung suddenly?

School reform is likely to be near the top of the Legislature’s priority list when lawmakers meet for their regular annual session in January and February. An “audit” of public education conducted by a private consultant provides dozens of recommendations for improvements – including reducing the power and cost of the state board and the state Department of Education.

The audit report was released in January and state board members, despite intensive discussions about it, have not yet provided the Legislature with a formal response to the study’s suggestions. It has been reported Marple and some board members did not agree on that.

Leaders of both the state’s teachers’ unions reacted negatively to Marple’s ouster. Does that provide any clue concerning why five state board members didn’t think she should remain in office?

Education reform is a critical need in West Virginia – and it needs to be done in the open, with the public a part of the process. To date, including what happened Thursday, that has not been the case.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at: