CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education is disputing claims that it violated state open-government laws by firing Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple.
A lawsuit filed by Mountain State Justice Inc. -- a public interest group -- alleges that the process used to fire Marple on Nov. 15 was illegal because plans for her termination were not listed on the meeting's agenda. The group filed the lawsuit on behalf of parents James and Michelle Hicks of Foster.
The lawsuit alleges that the state board has a history of violating the principles of open government and asks the West Virginia Supreme Court to declare the board's decision invalid and block its members from hiring a new superintendent.
An amendment was added to the lawsuit Friday afternoon and alleges illegitimate reasons for Marple's firing -- pointing to her refusal to support no-bid contracts tied to certain board members.
In its response to the lawsuit, filed Friday evening, the Board of Education claims that its actions did not break the law because, while Marple was not specifically named on the agenda, "personnel matters" was listed. It is a longstanding process of the board to discuss "sensitive issues" in private when dealing with personnel matters, the response states.
The wording in the agenda did not include any language that would limit the board to only discuss the two employees who specifically were mentioned in "personnel matters," according to the response to the lawsuit.
"Rather, a reasonable reading of this agenda item would allow for the board, while in executive session, to discuss any personnel matters that need to be deliberated," the board says in its response.
The board voted 5-2 to fire Marple at the Nov. 15 meeting. Board members spent more than an hour in closed session and then reappeared with the announcement of an addition to personnel matters. President Wade Linger then passed a piece of paper around to fellow board members, asking them to vote on the matter. The lone sentence on the paper asked them to vote to terminate Marple and that it take effect immediately.
The state open-meetings law prohibits public bodies from taking action on matters not posted in their published meeting agenda and prohibits amending agendas within two business days of the scheduled meeting, except in emergencies.
Emergencies are defined under the law as an "unexpected situation or sudden occurrence of a serious nature, such as an event that threatens public health and safety."
However, a 2005 advisory opinion that the state Ethics Commission issued concerning the Open Governmental Meetings Act provides guidance of how to cure a violation of the act. The commission's opinion states that a violation of the law that was not knowingly and willfully committed can be rectified. To do so, the governing body must take "reasonable remedial measures" that go above and beyond ceremonial or superficial ratification of their previous official action.
On Thursday, a Board of Education meeting was held to revisit Marple's firing. The board again voted to fire Marple, this time in a vote of 6-2, with the addition of board member Lloyd Jackson. He was not present at the Nov. 15 meeting.
Linger and Jackson joined Gayle Manchin, William White, Robert Dunlevy and Michael Green in voting to fire Marple. Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips again voted against the motion.
The Board of Education allowed three business days' notice of the new meeting, posted a description of the matters to be reconsidered on its website and opened the meeting to the public. Nearly 20 people signed up to address the board with their concerns.