Requirements for schools superintendent in bull's-eye
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twenty years ago, the state's teachers unions were outraged when the West Virginia Board of Education voted to lower the education experience requirements for county superintendents, fearing it would lead to "good old boys" hiring practices and a surge of superintendents with no background in public schools.
Today, some teachers' union members are fighting the same push by the Board of Education -- this time, to ease requirements to become state superintendent of schools. Others are saying the requirements aren't strict enough.
Current state code requires that the state superintendent have at least a master's degree in education administration in addition to five years of experience in public school work and a "recognized ability as a school administrator."
The board voted last week to conduct a nationwide search for a new state superintendent after Jorea Marple was abruptly terminated in November. Randolph County superintendent Jim Phares is serving as state superintendent in the interim.
Some board members believe the requirements are too specific and will narrow the pool for candidates. The board plans to ask the legislature to alter state code to alleviate that specificity in time for the national search.
Board member Lloyd Jackson called the detailed requirements "inappropriate" and "wrong" and questioned if a national search will be effective if the law is not changed.
"Hospitals figured out a long time ago that the best doctors don't always make the best administrators," he said. "I don't think we ought to be on the side of status quo -- we should be on the side of change. If we keep resisting, we'll get what we've always got. A national search all starts with whether the Legislature is going to accommodate us. You can only imagine the names of the people who have been involved in education and don't qualify because of the statute."
Mary Poling, chair of the House Education Committee, said not only are the current requirements sensible -- but they might not be strict enough.
"I don't think those requirements seem unreasonable. Such a high-level position usually requires a Ph.D. I'm actually surprised it's not a doctorate in educational administration," she said. "With all the talk about an essential component of student success being highly qualified teachers, and then to talk about reducing the qualifications for state superintendent, seems contradictory to me."
In 1991, the Board of Education, under superintendent Hank Marockie, faced a similar controversial policy change, when it voted to allow county boards to hire anyone with a master's degree and three years of management experience -- in any type of business -- to become a superintendent or principal.
Protesters, including the state's American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association, referred to the watered-down certification policy as "the Taco Bell degree," and said it created potential for "political abuse."
Board of Education members faced problems with the requirements again years later, in 2000, when they couldn't hire their top pick to replace Marockie, an associate superintendent from Illinois, because he didn't have a master's in education administration.
WVEA president Dale Lee has been at the forefront of present-day allegations of politics in the Department of Education -- blaming "a Manchin faction" on the state board for Marple's sudden termination and Phares' speedy appointment.
A pending petition before the West Virginia Supreme Court alleges that the board violated open-meeting laws and unfairly fired Marple for personal reasons tied to contracts with certain companies.
Lee stood before the board at a meeting last week just before Phares was sworn in to voice his concerns about the proposed changes to state code.
"Why would you want to do that? Why wouldn't you want your top educational leader to have experience in educational administration? You can't run the school system like a business. We're simply playing politics," he said. "This lends credence to the fact that they do, in fact, already have someone in mind for the position -- someone without the requirements.
"This board has lost a lot of credibility in doing things in backrooms underhandedly, so any action that they take regarding this will be looked at with suspicious eyes."
However, Judy Hale, president of the AFT, said that while she believes a state superintendent should have experience in education, the language of the state code is restrictive.
"It doesn't come out and say you have to be a county superintendent, but you almost would have to be in order to have that experience," she said. "I think it would make for a broader search, quite frankly. I think it's probably a good idea. I'm not saying they shouldn't have an education background, but it doesn't need to be so strict that it amounts to having to be a county superintendent."
Tom Campbell, a retired delegate who was appointed to the Board of Education just last week, said he sees the benefits of changing the state code, but it's hard to predict what the Legislature will allow
"The results are going to be interesting. Obviously, anything that has the support of the governor has more of a chance to succeed. I would hope that the people of West Virginia understand that we're trying to find the best person for their children. I don't have children, but if I did, I would want the best leader you could find," he said. "The current legislation is highly limited, and that mostly affects the students. But, the Legislature doesn't respond too well to pressure."
"We're not asking for any money, we're just asking them to change the code -- that's the selling point," board member Jenny Phillips added at the meeting.
State code also calls for the superintendent of schools to "be a person of good moral character" who serves at the will and pleasure of the board and caps their salary at $175,000.
"I can't imagine the Legislature wouldn't be open minded to us coming to them. It blows my mind that all of these things are in the code -- not only specific qualifications of who this person can't be, but even salaries," board member Mike Green said. "We've got to stand up and say we need the flexibility to find the best person possible."
Phares will serve "as long as it takes" for the board to conduct a search for a more long-term superintendent, and said his number-one goal is to tackle the numerous recommendations in the governor's education-efficiency audit of the state's school system -- many of which would require changes to state policy.
"My time and my duty and my call is to get this implemented, and my job is to work as quickly as I possibly can to bring that about because, the quicker I get those changes about, the better off our students will be," he said. "This isn't a long-term arrangement, by any means. I don't know how long it's going to take for them to flesh out the national search, but I'm going to work as hard as I can to implement the audit response and put it into action."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.