The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 30, 2012

W.Va. board affirms firing of Marple

CHARLESTON — Despite facing harsh criticism for its recent vote to fire Jorea Marple as West Virginia schools superintendent, the state Board of Education stuck with that decision Thursday as a way to change direction after chronically poor student performance.

But the board held off on selecting a permanent replacement during a meeting that included a lengthy pair of closed-door executive sessions. Board President Wade Linger said it would resume the discussion in December, noting calls to revamp the job’s duties and search for a successor nationally. Chuck Heinlein, who was a deputy superintendent, will continue to head the department in the meantime, the board decided.

Two former board members, at least seven active or retired educators and leaders of groups representing teachers, principals and school workers were among the 19 speakers who on Thursday praised Marple, denounced her firing or called for her reinstatement.

“While it’s your right to hire and fire at will, we are shocked at Dr. Marple’s abrupt termination, and the manner in which it was conducted,” said Jenny Santilli, a Harrison County foreign language teacher.

After the public comment period, the board met privately for about 90 minutes before voting to affirm its firing of Marple, this time by 6-2. Lloyd Jackson joined the five fellow board members who had voted Nov. 15 to oust Marple.

As they had at the earlier meeting, board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden opposed Marple’s firing Thursday. Haden noted how the public speakers had called her a dedicated educator, a visionary and an innovative problem-solver.

“Dr. Marple is and was an excellent superintendent,” Haden said.

Both she and Phillips have said they’ll resign at the end of the year over the firing. Marple did not appear at Thursday’s meeting.

The board scheduled the do-over vote amid concerns that its Nov. 15 actions violated the state open meetings law. Following a second executive session lasting about 75 minutes, the board decided Thursday to postpone any hiring decision. When Marple was initially fired, Linger had endorsed Randolph County schools chief James Phares for the job.

Following Thursday’s vote to dismiss Marple, the board adopted a statement from Linger that referred to how state students score below the national average on 21 of the 24 indicators of student performance as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Linger also cited how Education Week recently flunked West Virginia for K-12 student achievement, and that one in four high school students fail to graduate on time if at all.

“We are not saying that Superintendent Marple is any more responsible than governors, legislators, educators or board members for these shortcomings. We are not here to affix the blame,” Linger said. But he later added, “The board determined that in order to fix these problems, we need to head in a new direction with new leadership.”

Linger further alleged that a “defensive” Department of Education showed no sense of urgency regarding the lagging performance, and instead stonewalled or offered excuses when pressed to change.

But several of the public speakers noted that Marple had carried out numerous recommendations from the recent audit of the public schools system. The board responded to that wide-ranging review of education spending, policy and organization last week by embracing all but a handful of its findings, declaring the end result “a clear path for student success.”

The audit described a system with plenty of bureaucrats and ample funding but short on accountability and results. The board’s response lists more than 70 steps taken under Marple that responded to or mesh with the audit’s more than 120 recommendations.

The board’s firing of Marple comes about 19 months after it unanimously selected her following a lengthy search process. As the topic had not appeared on the Nov. 15 meeting’s agenda, a pending legal challenge by a pair of school parents asks the Supreme Court to void Marple’s firing by alleging the board violated the open meetings law. A response from the board to that filing is due today.

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