CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A young man stands alone on a semi-lit stage. He is worried, fretful. He is a prince who had been studying abroad but has been called home for an emergency: his heretofore-healthy father, the popular king, has died under murky circumstances. His mother and uncle have, it seems, grabbed the reins of power. Everyone is solicitous but jumpy. What is going on? It is at this point that the fictional prince utters one of the best known lines in English drama: "There is something rotten in Denmark."
The people of West Virginia a few weeks ago were shocked and fretful to learn that their heretofore-popular superintendent of schools was, under murky circumstances, fired. The Board of Education has grabbed the reins of power and is apparently seeking to install a puppet superintendent. What is going on?
Letters to the state's largest newspaper pour in. She promoted the arts. She saw that students were given needed nourishment. She had recently been given a glowing report. Why had she been fired?
Surely it is obvious that this act reduces the amount of trust in an already fragile system, just as the board intends to implement a plan that will require more trust. Have teacher promotion be based on someone's judgment of "merit" (rather than seniority), when the Board of Education itself sets an example of firing a conspicuously meritorious senior administrator? I don't think so.
In act two of Shakespeare's great tragedy, prince Hamlet prowls the castle, ceaselessly considering various courses of action. In act two of West Virginia's educational tragedy, some who are unhappy with the firing have announced they will sue the board, alleging that it was the superintendent's objection to cozy no-bid contracts that were the real cause of the firing. The Gazette reported that there have been such allegations in the past (going all the way back to the Caperton administration's relations with IBM). If it turns out that no connection can be made between the coziness and the firing, does this clear up the problem? No way: We would then have two areas of possible board misconduct that may or may not be connected. Connected or no, we need more transparency in both areas.
And now, more recently, we have the board asking that formal credential requirements for the superintendent job -- already pretty low -- be lowered even more. This would give the board even more scope for dubious behavior just as they have moved under the cloud of mistrust described above! Certainly there should be no major reorganization of West Virginia education until we can be very sure there are no hidden agendas.
Let's have some real investigative reporting! Nonprofits, let's give the two heroic soon-to-be-gone board members some awards and a soap box on which to address the state! Legislators, how about some hearings that go beyond the surface verbiage and announced goals of the proposed new program. Citizens, keep those letters-to-the-editor and to West Virginia politicians coming!
While it is clear we do not have the whole story, one thing is, by now, quite certain: There is something rotten in West Virginia.
Palmer is retired and is a substitute teacher.