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W.Va. Board of Education delays endorsement of Phares

Governor's Education Efficiency Audit

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia Board of Education members will postpone their recommendation of Randolph County Superintendent Jim Phares as the new state superintendent of schools.

Board members had planned to recommend Phares to replace Jorea Marple, who was abruptly fired last week, at a meeting Wednesday. But that meeting's agenda was amended Monday evening to remove the Phares recommendation so that board members can focus on their response to the governor's education efficiency audit, according to a Department of Education spokeswoman.

The recommendation for Phares, who said he planned to resign as Randolph County superintendent Monday to accept the state role, is now slated for next week.

The delay, in addition to conspiracy theories surrounding Marple's unexpected firing last week, has moved the issue of transparency within the Board of Education to the forefront.

Lowell Johnson, whose term as a state Board of Education member expired earlier this month, said the board's response to the $750,000 audit of the state's public school system could've been the perfect opportunity to clear the air and communicate with the public.

Instead, he said, it has strengthened suspicions that the board has something to hide.

"It's like all of a sudden, we've gone from being a board that's open and transparent to a board with hidden agendas that doesn't care about public input. Like we're going to do what we're going to do whether the public likes it or not," Johnson said. "If I was still on the board, I would want [the audit response] available to the public."

The audit, conducted by Pennsylvania-based consulting firm Public Works LLC, was released about a year ago, and the board has gone back-and-forth for months about how to formally respond to its wide range of recommendations, including "right-sizing" of administration, recruiting more teachers, implementing energy savings and increasing technology in classrooms.

The board dedicated a weekend retreat to address the audit and has even paid an outside consultant $350 a day to help draft a response.

The 150-page audit was divided into sections among the board members to study, and members of the board did not see the compiled final draft until last Thursday's meeting -- the same meeting where Marple was fired.

Board members were told they had until Monday to submit any suggestions or comments about the response. Then, on Wednesday, they will vote on it.

"It's taken them six months to get this done, and they give me five days," said school board member Priscilla Haden, who has said she will resign next month because of Marple's sudden ousting. "We never even knew who was assigned to which part. So, you don't know where it's coming from or if they had the expertise. We never got to see it as a whole."

The audit response is embargoed until the start of Wednesday's meeting, and board members were advised to not discuss the results, according to an email obtained by the Gazette.

Johnson said the way the audit response was handled is unusual.

"Generally with something this important, it is made available to the public so that the board can receive input. To pass it without any type of input seems to suggest they don't care what the public thinks. This isn't happening the way it's supposed to. The draft shouldn't be released the day it's voted on," he said.

"What's in there that they don't want the public to see until the very day they deal with it? While they are a constitutional body, what they do is relative to public schools and important to the citizens of the state. They need to be transparent."

That's why the West Virginia Education Association is continuing a series of open forums to get teachers and community members in on the discussion of the report's findings.

"It raises the issue of trust. Dr. Marple was well respected throughout the state and outside of the state. With the way things happened, it appears discussions were held with her successor before they talked to her. She was never given a real reason," said WVEA President Dale Lee.

"We were all working to find places in the audit where we could move forward for the students -- including Dr. Marple. This lack of trust is going to make it even more difficult to reach an agreement and to make a difference in our public schools."

Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said the board has received public input on the audit in a variety of ways by gathering feedback from several groups in the education community.

Lee, Johnson and Haden agree that the intent of the audit -- to better students' education -- is being buried under the financial and administrative issues it has brought to light.

"The kids are forgotten in this whole thing, and you'll see that when you look at the audit and the response. A lot of it is just about switching money and staff," Haden said.

The audit recommends major reallocation of funding within the state's school system and estimates to save the education system up to $90 million a year.

"It appears students are being left out of this thing. At this point, in many instances, it's about money instead of student achievement, which is the focus of our forums," Lee said.

Any updates provided during the board meeting Wednesday will be incorporated into the document so that the final version can be ready for the board's presentation to state legislators next Tuesday, according to Cordeiro.

Board members who voted to fire Marple on Thursday were Wade Linger, Gayle Manchin, Bill White, Bob Dunlevy and Mike Green. Board member Lloyd Jackson attended Wednesday's board meeting, but was absent Thursday. He will be out-of-town through Thanksgiving, a spokeswoman at his office said Monday.

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


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