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As state schools leader, Phares says he'll be different

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."

Marple's firing and Phares' hiring were surrounded by accusations of political motivations.

State school board President Wade Linger suggested Phares for the position the same day Marple was fired. Phares and Linger worked together in Marion County. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is also from Marion County; as governor, Manchin appointed Linger and several other state school board members, including his own wife, Gayle.

"I'm not politically connected as much as you guys try to make it so," Phares told members of the media at last month's board meeting. "You can't respond to all of the criticism. It's readily apparent there are a lot of forces that want these positive outcomes in West Virginia. I've had the ability to bring those that have been critical of me to work cooperatively and collaboratively."

Phares said he wanted his interview with state school board members in November to be conducted in public to forestall claims of political influence. At that meeting in Lincoln County, board members chose Phares over assistant state superintendent Kathy D'Antoni for the position.

When Phares took the superintendent position in Randolph County, the schools were edging toward a state takeover. Under his watch, full accreditation was returned to the county.

Phares received the West Virginia Superintendent of the Year award in 2007 and was also one of four superintendents considered for the national title the following year.

As state superintendent, Phares will oversee the budget of $2.5 billion. That's something he can handle too, he said.

"I've never had a deficit in any county. When I worked in Pocahontas County, they brought me in because they had $121 at the end of the year. When I finished, we had a carryover between $300,000 and $500,000," Phares said. "We had to change habits and make tough decisions ... and that's what I do."

Board members have said that a nationwide search could be contingent on whether the Legislature agrees to alleviate state code requirements for state superintendent.

Currently, superintendents must have a master's degree in education administration among other public school experience. Some members say those specific requirements are a hindrance when it comes to filling the position, and a nationwide search may not be worth the trouble if state code doesn't change.

Phares' swearing-in is scheduled for 10 a.m. today in the state Board of Education board room, in Building 6 of the state Capitol Complex.

Staff writer Kate Long contributed to this report.

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


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