CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gayle Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is the new president of the West Virginia Board of Education.
Board members elected her unanimously on Wednesday, after she'd served as vice president since 2011. She's been on the state board since 2007.
She replaces former board President Wade Linger, who will remain on the board through his term that ends in 2017.
Board member Michael Green, of Monongalia County, will take on the role of vice president.
The change in leadership comes at a crucial time. The board plans to conduct a nationwide search for a new state Superintendent of Schools as soon as September.
The board hired Jim Phares, of Randolph County, to act as a "short-term" superintendent after they abruptly fired former Superintendent Jorea Marple in November. She is now suing the state school board for wrongful termination.
Gayle Manchin said Wednesday that the controversial time has been a learning experience for the board, and its members have taken on more accountability than previous state school boards.
The Legislature's recent pressure on the board is both "the good news and the bad news," she said.
"I think we're evolving into a state board that is willing to step up and assume the responsibility it should have, and also the accountability. The role of the state board had devolved into an area that really was not serving the purpose that it was supposed to have," she said. "What has happened over the last six months is that this board has begun to grow and evolve into what a state board [is supposed to be.] And so now we have a lot of work to do."
While Linger caught the brunt of criticism following Marple's firing, Manchin praised his stint as president, saying, "He's set the bar high."
Both Manchin and Linger were among those who voted to fire Marple. Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips were the only board members to not support her termination, and both ultimately resigned because of it.
"I have just admired and respected the courage, the common sense and the leadership that Wade has shown. ... I hope to be able to serve at the level he did," Manchin said.
Linger said Wednesday that he hopes that what people take away from the board's work in the past year is that "anything is possible ... if this board stands up to do what needs to be done.
"If we accomplished anything, I hope [it's] the idea that we can change this thing. We can make it better," he said. "For a long time, the feeling has been that public education is just too stodgy and too cumbersome to change it and improve it. I don't think anyone thinks that now."
Linger did not deny it has been a hard road as president, saying, "I'd like to think I did the best I could.
"I'm reminded of that saying about boat owners: The happiest days are the ones when you buy the boat and when you sell the boat," he laughed. "I have to say it's been real."
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey attended Wednesday's meeting. His office will lend the board legal advice when it hires a search firm to find candidates for superintendent, and could have a process outlined for the board as soon as next month.
Linger said he reached out to Morrisey for guidance on the superintendent hiring process as a precaution, saying, "The last thing we want to do after all we've been through is to do this wrong."
Morrisey told board members at Wednesday's regular meeting that "complicated issues arise from national searches," pointing to open meetings laws and the bidding process.
"I think we have a good opportunity to have a top-flight practice. We've seen other state systems make mistakes in these areas, and we want to make sure there's a very good process in place that the state of West Virginia can be proud of," he said. "The key part of our office is to just help you with the legal issues so it allows you to focus on the substance of choosing who's the next superintendent."
During the 2013 regular session, at the request of the school board, the Legislature dropped a requirement that a superintendent's master's degree has to be in education administration, and also removed the $175,00 salary cap for the position.
Manchin said that while the board plans to conduct a nationwide search, there's still a chance the next state superintendent could be from West Virginia.
"We want the very best quality, and I'm not saying that that person might not end up being from West Virginia, but ... we said from the very beginning that we would do a nationwide search," she said. "So I think we owe it to our state, to our children, to do that.
"So that when we interview for the position, we will know that we are interviewing the best of the best and whomever we hire, the people of West Virginia can be proud of" the decision, she said.
Board member Robert Dunlevy was re-elected board secretary Wednesday. The president and vice president serve two-year terms.
The next state Board of Education meeting will be held Aug. 14.
The board members are Manchin, Linger, Green, Dunlevy, Bill White, Lloyd Jackson, Tom Campbell and Tina Combs.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.m...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.