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Emails show Linger, Phares correspondence months before Marple firing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Months before the state Board of Education voted to hire Jim Phares to replace former state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple, board President Wade Linger asked him for a copy of his résumé, according to emails obtained by the Gazette.

"I just simply wanted to see it because I was concerned about the direction of the department even back then, and I was aware that Dr. Phares had a lot of strong professional accomplishments. I just wanted to see it in writing," Linger said in a phone interview Thursday.

On Sept. 16, while Marple was still schools chief, Linger sent an email to Phares that asked, "Will you please email your bio to me? I don't need a full resume. Just the headlines."

Two months later, on Nov. 15, the Board of Education shocked many education leaders across the state by voting to terminate Marple. That same day, Linger recommended Phares for the position.

Leaders of the state's teachers unions, in addition to Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips -- former state board members who resigned because of Marple's firing -- voiced their concern with the board's firing process and Phares' speedy appointment.

Marple claimed the decision was merely political.

Though both Linger and Phares admitted to working with each other in Marion County, they denied that the move was predetermined or politically charged.

The day before Marple was fired, on Nov. 14, Linger forwarded Phares' bio to board liaison Donna Peduto, according to email records.

The same day, Linger asked Phares via email if he could be in Charleston the next day, which was the day that Marple was fired.

"Can you come to Charleston tomorrow if I can get us on the Gov schedule? Can we talk by phone this evening?" Linger asked Phares in the email.

When asked if he met with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to discuss Phares' appointment prior to Marple's termination, Linger said, "There was no such meeting."

Amy Shuler Goodwin, communications director for Tomblin, confirmed the governor did meet with Linger and Phares on Nov. 15, but after Marple had already been fired. Tomblin "didn't know [the board planned to fire Marple] until shortly before," Goodwin said.

Linger and Phares also exchanged emails a week before Marple's termination, collaborating on the governor's statewide education audit recommendations, particularly concerning the Department of Education's data system.

Phares had publicly voiced his displeasure with the West Virginia Education Information System (WVEIS), and in the email, Linger, who has a background in technology, makes it clear he's on the same page.

A Freedom of Information Act request was first filed by the Gazette in November after Marple's firing, but the Department of Education's legal counsel did not respond to the request until Thursday, saying the response was delayed because of multiple requests.

Since Marple was fired, accusations swirled as to why she was suddenly terminated in a 5-2 vote when just five months prior, the board gave her a glowing evaluation.

Some pointed to ties to her husband, former state Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who lost his re-election bid shortly before she was fired. Others, like Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association, blamed "a Manchin faction" for the decision. Sen. Joe Manchin's wife, Gayle, is currently vice president of the state board.

Another red flag for skeptics was when Phares did not hesitate to announce his plans to resign as Randolph County Schools' superintendent just 24 hours after Marple was fired.

On Nov. 16, the day following Marple's termination, Linger warned Phares to take a step back.

"I want you to know that I am being told that it is a bad idea for you to take any kind of resignation action whatsoever until after the WVBOE takes official action offering you the position. The concern is that your doing so will create the appearance that I am overstepping my authority by offering a position on my own. Even if you and I know that is not true, it most certainly can and will be [spun] that way," Linger wrote in an email to Phares.

"I don't need that extra hurdle to jump, and it will definitely harm my chances of convincing the Board to support me on this," Linger wrote. "I think your approach in not taking the appointment for granted is good. But you really need to back that up with the way you deal with your Board."

In December, the board voted unanimously to swear in Phares as the new superintendent, pending a nationwide search to find a more permanent position. 

"While the idea was initially mine to appoint him, no action could be taken to hire him without a majority vote. I don't know how anybody could say that we were somehow buddies or something like that. I've only known him in a professional way," Linger said Thursday. "I knew of his record in Marion County before I was even on the board, and his work in Randolph County was well documented. There's nothing more to it. It's really as simple as that."

Linger said he could not comment on when he and/or other board members determined it was time for a new superintendent or when he first considered Phares for the position, because of a pending lawsuit.

Attorneys on behalf of Marple notified the board last month that she intends to sue, claiming she was illegally dismissed and has subsequently suffered permanent injury to her reputation.

An earlier lawsuit on behalf of parents of a public school student claims the board's process of firing Marple breaks open meeting laws.

Linger first declined to comment Thursday over the phone about the emails, and instead insisted on an email interview. He then responded to email questions by saying he could not comment because of the pending legal matters.

But he called later in the afternoon, saying he wanted to comment despite being advised not to.

Linger said Thursday it was clear to him that others also felt the board needed a new direction and that Phares was the right person to lead the board during a critical time for education in the state.

"I didn't necessarily know it ... but I assumed that everybody was feeling the same thing. I knew that it would probably take some time to get a serious national search executed, and we were about to release the audit response and getting into a pretty important legislative cycle where education reform was going to take center stage," he said. "So, having a strong leader in there during this phase was important."

Phillips, who had served on the board since 2005, said she knew nothing about the plans to fire Marple, but said she and Haden were kept out of the loop because the board knew they would not support the decision.

"I don't know Wade's relationship with Jim Phares, but I have to assume it was close," she said. "I couldn't believe it when they fired Jorea. All of the sudden, bam. I still get phone calls asking what happened. I was just amazed."

But, the Randolph County native said hindsight is 20/20.

"Jim had showed up at my house [in Elkins] a week or so before Jorea was fired. He had told me that he had seen Wade and that he wanted to let me know that he understood the board was very disjointed," she said. "It was strange. He had never shown up before."

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


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