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How did Marple lose favor?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education has been vague when it comes to the reason for firing state schools superintendent Jorea Marple but, on Friday, a detail emerged that some say might hold the key to the puzzle - no-bid contracts. More specifically, Marple's reluctance to support them.

Public interest group Mountain State Justice is challenging Marple's firing in court. On Friday, it amended its petition with the West Virginia Supreme Court, alleging that her firing "is clearly pretext for some other illegitimate reason."

It points to her objection to no-bid contracts for projects tied closely to board members.

Usually, state contracts are bid out, so that all interested companies get an equal chance at doing business with the state.

Among the contracts in question are those related to Globaloria, a computer-based social learning network, and AmberVision, a software program that helps find missing children, according to board members, and confirmed by Bren Pomponio, the lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of parents of a child in Boone County.

Also, a difference of opinion between Marple and at least one board member regarding the state's contract providing high-speed Internet access to schools, shows a superintendent who was quickly losing support.

Board member Priscilla Haden, who voted against Marple's firing and plans to resign as a result, said it was well known that Marple supported a fair bidding process no matter who was interested in advancing their business.

"Jorea was very definite about no-bid contracts and believed that everyone has to follow proper procedures. She was fair," Haden said. "It's not that she necessarily disapproved of certain programs, but she believed it had to go out for bid - you can't just put something in our schools because someone wants it there."

Haden said she was surprised to see that the governor's education efficiency audit recommends state code be altered so that the Department of Education is exempt from procurement laws that require competitive bids when hiring outside companies.

The audit claims that the Department of Education is different from most state agencies and that state purchasing requirements are a hindrance.

 

'That made some people angry'

Idit Caperton, wife of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, created Globaloria software in 2007.

The Capertons made several presentations before the board, urging the Department of Education to become the pilot state for the program. So far, West Virginia has spent more than $1.1 million on the software.

Although contract deals often do not go before the board, it was known among its members that Marple's decision to go through a common bidding process to allow other providers an opportunity came at the displeasure of Gaston Caperton, according to Lowell Johnson, whose term on the state school board ended last month before the vote to fire Marple.

"Everyone knew about it, but it was never officially addressed," he said. "We knew, through the grapevine, that Marple had made it go up for bid and that made some people angry."

One of those people was board member Gayle Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Gayle Manchin serves as the co-chair of the Globaloria-WV Advisory Board and was adamant that the state's schools implement the program, Johnson said.

Pomponio was told that the Globaloria contract had been a no-bid contract and the superintendent thought it should be competitively bid.

"Most dealings were not done in front of the state board," Johnson said, "but I know Jorea wanted to uphold the law in terms of bidding processes."

 

Software to help find missing kids

Another contract that Pomponio said the lawsuit is questioning is with AmberVision - "highly sophisticated" software that gets the word out when children go missing, according to the Department of Education's website.

The department started using the system in 2010, and Marple had expressed concerns with that partnership as well, according to Pomponio.

The Benedum Foundation gave the Department of Education a $65,000 grant to implement the program, which helps schools scan and record digital images of students in the event of an emergency, according to the foundation's 2010 report.

Board member Lloyd Jackson serves as a trustee of the Benedum Foundation.

Pomponio said he was told that Board of Education president Wade Linger, who has a background in technology, had an interest in the company that runs AmberVision.

Marple was concerned about certain contests being conducted that rewarded schools that enrolled the most students in AmberVision with a cash prize. The money for the prizes was coming from the Benedum grant, which she believed should be used for other services.

"She didn't think that should be a priority," Pomponio said. "It didn't have much to do with education."

Manchin, Jackson and Linger voted to terminate Marple, in addition to fellow board members William White, Michael Green and Robert Dunlevy.

 

Marple, Gayle Manchin disagree on project

Last year, Marple called on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to explain the state's "lack of progress" in completing a federal stimulus project designed to bring high-speed Internet to schools and other public facilities across West Virginia.

Marple wrote a five-page letter to the state commerce secretary raising questions about how the government planned to pay Frontier, the company leading the project, with federal grant funds and expressed concern about previous related contracts.

After Marple's letter, Gayle Manchin publicly expressed praise for the project during a Board of Education meeting.

Manchin later suggested the board write a letter supporting the Internet project, but Marple resisted, according to Pomponio.

"I do know that, at one point, Gayle said she would like for the Department of Education to defend the [broadband access] process. She made a rhetorical comment, in public, that it would be good for the public school system," Johnson said. "She was unhappy because the department didn't put out a press release.

 

Education contracts have come under fire before

This is not the first time contracts have been at the center of controversy for the state Department of Education.

In the early 1990s, then-state schools superintendent Hank Marockie and Attorney General Darrell McGraw went to court over a contract between the Department of Education and IBM and Jostens Learning Corp. to buy computers for schools.

McGraw, who recently lost his seat as attorney general and is married to Marple, claimed the contract did not abide by state bidding regulations.

Marockie pushed to expedite the process because he said time was being wasted and students were going without computers. The computers were being distributed as part of a program headed by Caperton, who was governor at that time, to train students to work with new technology.

It was later ruled that McGraw did not have the authority to stop the contract.

Johnson, Haden and board member Jenny Phillips, who also voted against Marple's firing and plans to resign, said no-bid contracts have been an underlying issue for the board at times.

"I don't know what the problem is that we have to deal with things without transparency," Johnson said.

 

'There's no lawsuit,' board's attorney says

Board of Education members have been advised not to comment on the matters while the lawsuit is pending, according to a spokeswoman.

Victor Flanagan of Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown and Poe, the firm representing the Board of Education, said because the supplemental brief that addresses the no-bid contract allegations was filed Friday, the same day the board was required to respond to the original lawsuit, the board cannot elaborate on the matter.

Flanagan urged people to stop referring to the matter as a lawsuit and said that, because it is a writ of mandamus, it does not hold the same meaning. A writ of mandamus is a court order that mandates a public body to fulfill its official duties or correct an abuse of discretion and is generally used when a party has no alternative forms of review.

"There is no lawsuit at this point -- just a writ of mandamus. It's a very unusual position to take, and it's rarely used. The only issue that is before the court right now is whether the first meeting followed all the rules," Flanagan said. "I'm not going to act like I'm naive. I have heard of the issue with the contract but, to be frank, there's no lawsuit, so there is no need to address it. If they actually file a suit, we will address it then."

In its response to the Supreme Court, filed Friday, the Board of Education claims it did not break any laws by firing Marple, pointing to her position as a "will and pleasure" employee, and that if the court found that they did, the board's wrongdoings would be rectified by holding the subsequent meeting Thursday, where its members again voted to fire her.

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


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