By Sarah Plummer
Two members of the West Virginia Board of Education are still in shock over Thursday’s 5-2 vote to fire state Superintendent Jorea Marple, but both Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden are raising questions about the legality of the action.
Both members announced their resignation after the meeting and by Friday were raising questions about the reasoning behind her dismissal.
“I was completely and entirely surprised,” said Phillips, who has served on the board since 2005. “Her termination was not on the agenda. It had never been discussed, and then all of a sudden to bring up that she was to be fired was absolutely astounding.”
Haden, who has served on the board since 2003, explained, “I am upset with the lack of transparency in this process and I think some of it is perhaps illegal. I really believe the public needs to know what happens and that has not been the case.”
Haden explained that neither a discussion or mention of an action regarding Marple’s contract was on the meeting agenda.
She said the board went into executive session to discuss a personnel issue with a specific named individual, something not unusual for the board to do.
The board discussed the issue, but then Haden was shocked when Marple was asked to leave the room.
Returning to public session, the board then voted on Marple’s dismissal.
In an Open Meetings Advisory Opinion, the ethics committee stated that there was no provision in the Open Meetings Act that required particular items discussed in an executive session to be delineated in agendas.
Making a board decision on an item that was not listed on the agenda, however, is typically not allowed.
While only the court system can decide if a governing body has violated the Open Meetings Act, the West Virginia Ethics Commission, pursuant to its past opinions, ruled that an agenda cannot be amended during the course of the meeting unless it is in an emergency situation, said Theresa Kirk, executive director of the commission.
In addition, Open Meetings Advisory Opinion No. 2009-4 explained “emergencies are determined on a case by case basis. The Committee encourages all governing bodies to contact the Ethics Commission immediately to determine if a situation presented constitutes a true emergency under the (Open Meetings) Act.”
Under the law emergencies are defined as an “unexpected situation or sudden occurrence of a serious nature, such as an event that threatens public health and safety.”
Phillips and Haden both expressed concern that Board of Education President L. Wade Linger Jr. announced that he would recommend James Phares, Randolph County superintendent, to fill the vacancy at a special meeting this Wednesday.
“I would hope there would be a search and an application process. I don’t think it is fair for one person to choose the superintendent of West Virginia’s schools,” said Haden. “There is no doubt in my mind that the board will vote to approve Dr. Phares, and I am upset with how this process has taken place.”
Likewise, Phillips commented, “I can’t believe that with a position as important as this one, that there would not be a posting and an application process. So now we are just going to hand it off to a county superintendent without looking beyond our borders or anywhere else within the state.”
Phillips stressed that she suspects this decision was developed because of a relationship between Phares and at least one member of the board.
She also noted that Phares was previously the superintendent of Marion County where Linger is a resident.
Board Vice President Gayle Manchin also taught in Marion County schools where her husband, Sen. Joe Manchin, is a native.
Both board members, whose resignations will be effective Dec. 31, stressed their pleasure with Marple’s work.
“It is the children of West Virginia that have lost a dynamic superintendent, a real visionary,” Phillips said.
Haden explained that she first worked with Marple in Kanawha County. Marple was then county superintendent.
“She was excellent then and I was delighted when she was chosen for the state position. What she has accomplished in a short amount of time is truly amazing,” she said.
Haden explained that the board evaluated Marple in June and there had been no negative comments regarding her work. Maple was awarded a $2,000 raise at that time.
The board member highlighted many of Marple’s accomplishments including her stance on student health and wellness, the implementation of the Universal Free Meals in many counties, the implementation of the core standards, developing pilot programs for teacher evaluations based on student growth over test scores, and supporting the state’s career and technical education’s drive to cater to West Virginia’s workforce demands.
“She is a strong advocate of the arts and she is respected by the superintendents, teachers and school personnel across the state,” added Haden. “When I travel across the state, I am often stopped and told how pleased people are with her. I have never heard any objection to the quality of her work.”
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