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Phares vows to renew trust in state schools leadership

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's 28th state schools superintendent expects a busy first month on the job.

New Superintendent Jim Phares plans to meet with teachers, parents, principals, and county superintendents and school board members across the state. He hopes to restore trust in the state Department of Education and state school board.

In November, the board abruptly fired Jorea Marple. School board critics alleged that Marple's dismissal was politically motivated, and on Wednesday Marple gave the state Department of Education notice of her intention to sue.   

"We hope to rebuild trust," Phares said during a swearing-in ceremony Wednesday. "We hope to rebuild communications. And above all else, we hope to be open and transparent with everything that we do."

Marple's departure shocked education circles in West Virginia. Two state board members resigned in protest. Marple's firing came amid debate over a statewide education audit that found millions of dollars in inefficiencies and recommended widespread reforms.

Some board members said Marple was resisting the audit's recommendations. Marple said she was implementing many of the suggested changes.

The education audit recommendations included reducing the number of administrators at the state Department of Education.

"The department has been beat up -- maybe fairly, maybe unfairly," Phares said after he was sworn in by state Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin.

Phares has started meeting with state education department employees. Those talks have been productive, he said.

"We have a lot of people who know exactly what their job is," he said.

By late Wednesday, Phares promised to prepare an "action plan" for the next 30 days.

"We have some difficult work to do," he said. "We're going to have some tough decisions to make."

Phares said he expects to work closely with state school board members. He acknowledged that board members plan to play a more active role in K-12 school decisions.

"The Board of Education has expanded its constitutional authority to the fullest extent," said Phares, who will be paid $165,000 as superintendent. 

Today, Phares plans to meet with Jackson County school board members in Ripley. Later this week, he plans to talk to leaders of the West Virginia School Boards Association. He's also meeting with county superintendents.

"It's important to start that dialogue, to begin discussions so we can move forward," Phares said.

Phares said he wants to move teacher-training programs back to county school systems and Regional Education Service Agencies, or RESAs. The education audit recommended the change. 

"Rather than centralize the professional development, we are going to move it out to the RESAS and localities," he said. "One of the first things we're going to do is send funds to the counties and the RESAs so they can embed that as close to the classroom level as possible."

Phares, an Elkins native, has worked as a teacher and principal. His first school superintendent job was in Virginia. He later served as superintendent in Pocahontas, Marion and Randolph counties.

In Randolph County, Phares was credited with helping the school system fix numerous deficiencies detailed in a comprehensive review by the state Office of Education Performance Audits. The improvement prevented a state takeover of Randolph's schools.

As Randolph County's superintendent two years ago, voters also approved a school excess levy for the first time since 1989.

Christine Campbell, incoming president for the West Virginia Federation of Teachers, said she hopes Phares "does the right things."

The state school board has announced plans to conduct a national superintendent search, so Phares' tenure could be short. State law prohibits the board from naming acting or interim state school superintendents, according to legal opinions. Phares has said he may apply for the job a second time.

"Everybody is worried how this will go, but I think the panic is over," Campbell said. "Anyone who will give us a seat at the table, we'll take it."  

As Pocahontas County superintendent, Phares was successful in helping the schools adopt provisions mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Campbell said Wednesday.

"He knows what he's talking about," Campbell said. "He really wanted to understand the law and communicate it to us."

Also Wednesday, Phares talked about bolstering school security in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings. He suggested increasing the number of "community resource officers" in schools, but said he wasn't prepared to start any initiatives.

"There needs to be a lot of discussion with a lot of groups," Phares said.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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