The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 26, 2012

State Board of Education — Before firing, superintendent acted on audit

CHARLESTON — Jorea Marple was carrying out numerous recommendations from the much-discussed audit of West Virginia’s public schools system when she was fired as superintendent, by Board of Education members eager to signal to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature that they supported the extensive review of education spending, policy and organization.

Those board members have cited the need for change when explaining Marple’s ouster, in light of struggling student performance. At least one member, Gayle Manchin, has commented further.

“My viewpoint was, we should all embrace this audit and garner from its findings and recommendation that would help us make the changes that needed to be made,” Manchin told The Associated Press last week. “My personal opinion is that wasn’t necessarily the way it was received at the Department of Education.”

Manchin added that some at the department have welcomed the audit. She also said she recognized that some of its recommendations were being carried out under Marple.

“I think there were some things being done. I think some changes were being made,” Manchin said. “I (also) think there was a defensiveness on (the department’s) part.”

When the board endorsed all but a handful of the audit’s findings last week, it issued a draft response that listed more than 70 steps taken in response to or that mesh with recommendations in the audit. Commissioned by Tomblin, the audit report was published in January.

The audit took aim, for instance, at the high number of Department of Education staff when compared to students. The board’s draft response credits Marple — though not by name — for beginning to reduce and revamp her department’s bureaucracy.

“In the months following the release of the audit report, the state superintendent worked to redefine the organization based on current major functions and goals, rather than funding streams,” the draft response said. “The superintendent reported approximately 30 positions are currently vacant, with all vacancies being reviewed and only critical positions being filled.”

Department officials estimated in August that eliminating vacant positions not deemed critical would save $1.2 million annually. But Manchin said board members are adamant about dismantling the education system’s top-heavy bureaucracy.

“The more we can push those services and the money down to the county and local level, the better we can be,” Manchin said. “The achievement and growth of K-12 students should be the focus.”

Other audit items acted upon by Marple include giving schools more flexibility with teacher mentoring funds, requiring regular reports on efforts to aid low-performing schools, and creating leadership teams to unify what had been fragmented programs aimed at boosting student achievement. The department has pursued a statewide computer bus routing system, as recommended by the audit, and expects to award the resulting contract by Jan. 1. Responding to other audit findings, the department has also revised its purchasing policies, and begun revamping the way it helps professional development.

But the board’s Nov. 21 endorsement of the audit also showed how much further it wishes to go.

Besides targeting the bureaucracy as cited by Manchin, the board singled out the audit’s call for filling teacher vacancies by merit instead of seniority. Agreeing that the best person should get the job, the board’s draft response concludes that seniority should not be the only factor considered. While the department had not acted on that recommendation, both the audit and the board’s draft response noted that it would require changes to state law.

Other recommendations highlighted by the board last week include giving principals more power over hiring and firing, and beginning a “meaningful conversation” regarding “the struggles facing small county school systems and the future of the 55-county board system.”

The board’s response to the audit followed its 5-2 vote on Nov. 15 to dismiss Marple, less than two years after it unanimously selected her following a lengthy search process. Amid concerns about whether it complied with the state’s open meetings law, the board plans to return to the topic on Thursday. That meeting’s agenda also includes discussion of hiring a new superintendent.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the state School Service Personnel Association believes philosophical differences between some board members and the department led to Marple’s firing, citing conversations with board members. Those groups and the West Virginia Education Association have decried her dismissal, and have vowed to seek answers at the Thursday meeting.

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