Marple's firing comes as a shock to many
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia education leaders are up in arms about the sudden firing of state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple.
The West Virginia Board of Education voted to terminate Marple, who took on the role as the state's first female superintendent last March, in a 5-2 vote without discussion during a regular meeting on Thursday.
The two board members who voted against Marple's termination, longtime education leaders Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden, announced their intentions to resign following the motion.
Marple was shocked by the news and said she was given no reason for her termination, which leads her to believe it's a political move.
"I don't know why. I can only assume it is political. The statement was that they did not have faith in my leadership. So, that's it," she said. "We were making great progress. The decisions we've made have been about kids, from feeding kids to establishing expectations and policy that support good behavior and engaging our communities. We have won national awards. I could give you 5,000 things that have occurred, but I in no way want to be self-serving here. This isn't about me."
In an emergency meeting held following the termination, board president Wade Linger recommended superintendent of Randolph County Schools, Jim Phares, be appointed as the new state superintendent. Deputy State Superintendent Chuck Heinlein is holding the spot of superintendent until the matter is further discussed next week, since state law does not allow the position to remain vacant.
Haden, who officially resigns at the end of December, objected to the recommendation, and said a thorough search for a new superintendent should be performed.
"In my memory, we have done a search and we have given all educators in West Virginia the opportunity to apply and have even looked out of state on some occasions," she said.
Linger and board members Bill White, Gayle Manchin, Bob Dunlevy and Mike Green voted to fire Marple. All were appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, now a U.S. senator.
"The Manchin appointees clearly have an agenda of their own, and it's not necessarily in the best interest of students. For personal agendas to come into play is just appalling," said West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee. "Dr. Marple has moved the state forward. She's put the children first in every decision that she's made. She's done exactly what her job was supposed to be. For this to come out of the blue like this is just appalling. It appears to me that people want total control, and that's wrong."
Lloyd Jackson, a state board member who was appointed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, was absent from the meeting Thursday and did not vote. Former board member Lowell Johnson just left the board, and Tomblin has not announced his replacement.
Lee said he and Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers, will "stand together in anger" to try to make it right.
"My question goes beyond what happens today -- where does this leave the state Board of Education? Are we in a state of chaos now? How do we go forward from here?" Hale said. "I am disturbed because of the manner in which this was done. It leaves a void for the children and teachers and service personnel across the state. I do not know what has motivated this."
But Linger said the accusations aren't true.
"What politics? I really don't know what they're talking about," he said in response to the claims.
Many were upset by the unusual process of Marple's termination.
The matter was not listed on the agenda. Board members spent more than an hour in closed session, excluding Marple. Then, after Linger called another short break, it was announced that an additional item had been tacked onto personnel matters.
Linger passed around a piece of paper stating that Marple's termination be effective immediately.
"They went into executive session and the president of the board came out and told me that's what they discussed. I am extraordinarily disappointed in the process utilized here. It was indeed a surprise," Marple said. "There are so many great needs. I'm concerned about the funding formula, and maybe I've been too outspoken about that. The funding formula does not provide equity of access to all of the kids where they can be provided a broad curriculum, and people need to look at that. It's been my experience that sometimes being outspoken is problematic."
Marple said she's also worried about the impact of the loss of Haden and Phillips.
"The resignation of those two from this board is a big thing. It's a big loss for the children and the teachers," she said.
Johnson, whose term on the state board expired Nov. 4, said regardless of the rumors, something doesn't add up.
"We did an evaluation of her in July, and the president came out of executive session and said she had done a satisfactory job in her first year and gave her a $2,000 raise," Johnson said. "This is not in the best interest of the children of West Virginia. She has worked tirelessly to reform our public education.
"She has stood beside teachers and formulated a wonderful nutrition program to try to get children to eat healthy foods," Johnson said. "You can go on and on about the things she has accomplished in her short time here. The members of the board just don't have a reason."
Johnson said the way the matter was handled is telling of the motivations behind the decision.
"I don't understand why this was done in a sneaky and cowardly way and not announced to the public so that people could address it. In a situation like that, somebody must've been talking to somebody about doing it for a while," he said. "A lack of transparency is the last thing we need. You can't go behind the scenes and plot something like this."
Phillips said she is resigning because it's just unfair, and pointed to Phares' professional connections to Marion County, where both Linger and the Manchins are from. Phares is a former Marion County superintendent.
"It was a total surprise. It had never been discussed. It doesn't make any sense," she said. "I believe this was a set-up deal. All of that just doesn't happen for no reason."
Phares' recent outspoken criticisms of some of the state department's strategies handling technology and its "top-down" model make sense now, Philips said.
"It's very strange for a county superintendent to just take on the state superintendent like that," she said.
Linger said the decision to remove Marple had to be made as soon as possible in order to help turn around the state's schools.
"We're coming up on a time when we need real change in education in this state. Now is just the right time to bring in new leadership with new attitudes and forward-thinking views on education," he said. "I'm not going to engage in a bashing session of Dr. Marple. I think she's a great person. But, I think that it's pretty clear that if we want to make changes and move in new directions, then it's necessary for new leadership to be effective in that."
Linger said he's confident Phares can handle the job.
"He did a great job in Marion County when he was there and now he's doing a great job in Randolph County. ... I'm confident we'll go in the direction the board wants to go, the public wants to go, and most of all, where the students need to go," Linger said.
Marple is married to state Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who last week lost his re-election bid to Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at Mackenzie.firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.