CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the West Virginia Board of Education finally readies to respond to a statewide audit of the public school system, some officials worry that the recent drama within administration will put yet another bump in the road.
For months, the board went back and forth about how to respond to the governor's $750,000 audit, which recommends a range of major educational changes, and board president Wade Linger has continued to delay an official response, saying the board needed time if it wanted to get it right.
A special meeting is scheduled this week to reveal a draft of the response.
Linger said there will be four primary areas of focus for the response, with the top priority being increasing student achievement.
He said West Virginia students rank below the national average in many categories and received an "F" in the most recent report released by Education Week. The state's graduation rate is 78 percent, and one in four students does not graduate on time.
"These are statistics that must be turned around," he said.
Other main goals include revitalizing the connection with local school systems and "building mutual trust," moving forward with the audit response and committing to transparency, and communicating better with the Department of Education, the state Legislature and the Governor's Office.
"I really appreciate the input that's come in from the board on this thing. The next version of the draft is what I personally hope is the last version of the draft, but we won't know that until the board looks at it. We're going to get it out to you soon enough to get your comments back -- assuming there are any," Linger told the board Thursday before giving them the draft. "Let's get this thing put to bed."
This exchange, however, came just before an item was unexpectedly added to the board's agenda -- to terminate state schools superintendent Jorea Marple.
The 5-2 vote to fire Marple, who had held the position only a year and half, has rocked the state's education system, causing two board members -- Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips -- to tender their resignations from the panel.
Now, a new topic will be the focus of Wednesday's special meeting. Linger plans to also use the time to recommend Jim Phares, Randolph County's superintendent, for the position.
Phillips said, with all of the talk about reform that came with creating a response for the audit, no displeasure with Marple's performance was ever mentioned.
"We went through the audit page by page," she said. "At no time did I ever hear anybody say that Dr. Marple was an impediment to making this happen. As a matter of fact, she had already accomplished many of the things that were in the audit."
The audit, released nearly a year ago and conducted by Pennsylvania consulting firm Public Works LLC, calls for innovation and lists new strategies that could save the state up to $90 million a year, if followed.
"Newly-appointed Superintendent Jorea Marple and the state Board of Education are examining the WVDE organization and working to assess its effectiveness. In the past six months, Marple has instituted a broad internal management and accountability system to focus, streamline and coordinate the work of WVDE staff," the audit states. "Upon assuming leadership of the WVDE, Superintendent Marple focused almost immediately on how to bring West Virginia's schools into the 21st Century through targeted initiatives, including the use of technology."
Phillips said Marple was well on her way to adhering to many of the audit's recommendations.
"A lot of the things in the audit required legislative changes, but she had already accepted [the idea] to reorganize the department as suggested. She had made a lot of starts," Phillips said. "They say now is the time to change leadership. I have no idea what that means. It seems to me that this is the worst time for change."
Prior to Marple's termination at last Thursday's meeting, concerns arose about Linger's direction for the board.
Linger suggested the board hire an independent legal counsel, in addition to the Department of Education's two attorneys.