CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As West Virginia's 28th state superintendent of schools, Jim Phares believes he will be unlike any that served before him.
"What I am is a voice from the counties, and I bring a totally different perspective. I'm not the guy that has that pedigree. I don't have any experience in Kanawha County, which seems to be a prerequisite, and I don't have any state Department [of Education] experience," Phares said recently. "They made a bold statement by going outside the department."
West Virginia Board of Education members plan to swear in Phares as the new state superintendent of schools today. He will replace Jorea Marple, who was fired in November in an unexpected move that led to the resignations of the two board members who voted against Marple's firing. State deputy superintendent Chuck Heinlein has served as superintendent since Marple was fired.
Phares worked as a teacher and a coach in Virginia for 25 years before serving as superintendent in Pocahontas, Marion and, most recently, Randolph County.
For now, he will hold the state superintendent's position while the board conducts a nationwide search for a more long-term replacement.
While Phares said his state role "is not a long-term arrangement by any means," he prides himself in making "the tough decisions" and says his number one priority is to tackle the recommendations made in the governor's education efficiency audit.
"I don't see this as an ascension. I see this as an opportunity to work with a broader base of counties, and that's what I'm committed to doing. I love this state, and I believe in serving every child in this state," Phares said. "My time and my duty and my call is to get this [the audit] 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."
The $750,000 efficiency audit of the state's public schools, conducted last year at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, recommends numerous changes -- calling the Department of Education's administration "top heavy" and listing ways the system can improve.
At the top of Phares' to-do list are plans to redistribute responsibilities at the Department of Education in order to "right size" the staff, give more control to county school systems and increase technology access for students, he said.
Phares said he has already begun an "emotional assessment" of the department's employees, in which he's conducted candid conversations with the staff about their strengths and weaknesses, he said.
"I do a lot of listening," he said. "As we go forward, if you're going to make the reforms the board wants, that the governor expects, that the Legislature wants, that the folks at counties want, you're going to have dialogue. It has to be done."
Tomblin has asked most state agencies, including the Department of Education, to submit budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that include a 7.5 percent budget cut.
"There is a $380 million hole in the fiscal budget this year for the state," said Phares, who will earn $165,000 a year as superintendent. "Education is 50 percent of that budget." The law protects some school funding, he said, "but the state board and my office are going to comply with the governor's request to find that 7 percent cut."