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Phares denies 'Manchin faction' cabal on W.Va. BOE

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jim Phares is not denying his connections to members of the West Virginia Board of Education but says any accusations that the board had ulterior motives in speedily recommending him to become the next superintendent are "just nonsensical balderdash."

Jorea Marple, who was appointed as superintendent last March, was unexpectedly fired without a given reason in a regular board meeting on Thursday by a vote of 5-2.

Later that same day, state Board of Education President Wade Linger called an emergency meeting to appoint an interim superintendent and announced his plans to recommend Phares, Randolph County's superintendent, for the permanent position next week.

Marple said her abrupt termination is solely political, and now many people are questioning why a more thorough search isn't being conducted for her replacement.

 Some are pointing to Phares' ties to Marion County. Sen. Joe Manchin, his wife, Gayle, a state school board member, and Linger are all natives of Fairmont.

Teachers union leaders such as Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, are blaming the "Manchin faction" for Marple's sudden ousting.

Phares served as the superintendent of Marion County schools in the early 2000s, where he worked with Linger.

Linger, who has a background in business and computer programming, worked on a Local School Improvement Council in the area and often provided input on school business, Phares said.

"I know Senator Manchin and Mrs. Manchin and, yes, I know Wade. Wade has been very cognizant of my work in Marion County, and sure, the Manchins were, too," Phares said. "I guess, if people want to put ties together, they can. It doesn't surprise me."

Phares, who worked as a teacher and a coach in Virginia for 25 years before serving as superintendent in Pocahontas and Marion counties, plans to offer his resignation as Randolph County superintendent at a county board meeting on Monday. He said his resignation would be effective at the end of the day Wednesday.

"I'm humbled and honored I'm being considered. I won't hesitate at all in meeting the challenges that are coming up. This is a critical time," he said. "I plan on being in Charleston on Wednesday and becoming a full partner with the Department of Education, the state board, the Legislature and the Governor's Office."

Phares said it is too soon for him to talk about his plans if he's appointed, but he said the governor's education audit and the board's prolonged response -- which is to be released Wednesday -- will be at the forefront.

"There are recommendations and action steps that need to be put in place, and that's what I'm hoping to do. I would strongly be committed to making that [audit] response," he said. "The first important step is to adopt a vision together. It will become readily apparent what the priorities are and what that vision might be, but it's premature for me to comment at this time."

Phares said he did not want to comment about the public displeasure with the unorthodox way Marple was terminated but said he has had a positive relationship with her in the past.

Although Phares has been vocal in his criticisms of the state's data system and other parts of Marple's leadership, he commended her strides in children nutrition, calling it "a tremendous benefit" for his county.

"Personally, I had a great deal of respect for Dr. Marple. She laid a strong foundation for personalized learning, and we've had a good relationship over the years. But, the superintendency is a unique situation, and you have to understand that you serve at the will and pleasure of a board," he said. "When they want to take a new direction, no matter what your performance is, it has to happen. That occurs all the time in business.

"Any board always considers what is best for students no matter what side of the coin it comes down on. When there's change, there's always a time that embodies tension, and it's my intent to move [as] quickly as possible and change it for the betterment of the students."

Board members Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips announced their intention to resign after Marple's termination was announced, and both are concerned about the sudden plans for the appointment of Phares.

"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," Haden said.

Phillips said she believes it was a "set up" and that certain members had intentions of replacing Marple with Phares for a while.

Sen. Manchin appointed all five board members who voted to terminate Marple. Linger, Gayle Manchin, Bill White, Bob Dunlevy and Mike Green voted against Marple.

Board member Lloyd Jackson was not present Thursday, and former member Lowell Johnson's replacement has not yet been named. Johnson, whose term expired Nov. 4, said he believes the board's timing is suspect because he would have supported Marple.

In July, the state board met in closed session to discuss Marple's job performance. When the session ended, no action was taken and Linger announced that her performance was good. At the time, she also received a $2,000 raise. 

"I have no idea why they fired Jorea. There were some things said in the executive session that I can't repeat, but it still made no sense," Phillips said. "They said they want to find a forward-thinking superintendent. She's probably the most forward-thinking superintendent you could ever find."

Phillips, a Randolph County native, said Phares has made strides in the area. The school system was at risk of becoming taken over by the state and no longer is in a state of emergency like it was when he took the position.

"He came at the right time," she said. "When he came, we had just gone through an audit of the county and very definitely, changes needed to be made. I can't say that he's a visionary, but he straightened out a lot of things."

Lee also is pushing for a well-developed search for a new superintendent.

"I would hope that they would conduct a thorough search to find out who is available and that we could get the most qualified person to come in and lead the state. We certainly believe that Dr. Marple has done an excellent job, and I would hope that they would search to find a quality person to replace her," Lee said. "That's not to say it's not Dr. Phares, but if we want to be totally transparent, like the board says, then it makes sense to me to do a public search."

The Inter-Mountain reported in September that Phares was accused of promising to pay Randolph County school employees if they voted for an excess levy in 2010.

Phares said the allegations were false, and said transparency is something he believes in.

"I've always conducted myself in a way that, no matter what's written in the paper -- true or false -- it's not going to change who I am or what I'm about," he said. "And I'm about the students."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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