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Gayle Manchin: State school system needed a change

Nov. 20, 2012 @ 04:03 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — State Board of Education member Gayle Manchin said Tuesday that the need to change the deep-seeded culture at West Virginia's public school system prompted her vote last week to fire Superintendent Jorea Marple.

Manchin blamed a mindset at the state Department of Education— though not one shared by all there, she said — for West Virginia's chronically poor rankings on test scores and graduation rates. She also cited the significant taxpayer investments in the public schools, including close to $2 billion this budget year. It's one of the highest investments of education in the country, she said, but the "results certainly do not attest to that."

"My personal opinion was based on, do we have an individual that can change the culture and the environment?" Manchin said. "In order to do that, we had to have change. It's not personal, it's not even about one person. It's about culture and environment."

Manchin also said she wants the board to send a strong signal to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the Legislature when it meets Wednesday to respond to the wide-ranging audit of the education system. The $750,000 review describes a low-performing education system rigidly controlled by state bureaucrats and a host of policy-directing laws. The report includes more than 100 recommendations aimed at refocusing resources on student achievement while saving an estimated $70 million a year.

Manchin said that while some department officials have responded favorably to the audit, others have been "defensive." She did not directly name Marple.

"My hope was that everybody would embrace it as a mechanism for providing direction and new ideas," Manchin said. She added, "Either we could move forward with ease, or we could move forward with difficulty. In my view, it was going to take a change in direction and a change in perspective in order to move forward."

Board President Wade Linger also cited the need for a new direction following Thursday's 5-2 vote to fire Marple, who was previously a deputy superintendent and Kanawha County schools chief as well as a teacher, principal and author. Marple earned $165,000 a year.

Linger and the other three board members behind Marple's ouster did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

But even Linger's statement lauded Marple's career-long "concern for, and commitment to, West Virginia's schoolchildren." The two dissenting board members, Priscilla Haden and Jennie Philips, blasted the vote and have vowed to resign Dec. 31 in protest.

Marple's supporters planned a Tuesday evening vigil at the West Virginia Education Association offices in Charleston, in part to show their disapproval. Marple could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

With a background in education, Manchin was appointed to the board in 2007 by her husband, then-Gov. Joe Manchin. As the state's chief executive from 2005 until he resigned upon his election to the U.S. Senate in late 2010, Manchin appointed or re-appointed all seven board members who took part in last week's vote.

Soon after Marple's firing on Thursday, Linger announced that he wanted Randolph County Schools Superintendent James Phares to replace her. Phares has served as Randolph County schools superintendent since 2009, overseeing an effort to turn the school system around after the state board placed it on non-approval status and declared an emergency in December 2008. The state board lifted the state of emergency in December 2009 and restored the school system to full accreditation.

The board appointed Deputy Superintendent Charles Heinlein to succeed Marple in the interim. The board had planned to discuss a new superintendent on Wednesday, but postponed the matter until a Nov. 29 meeting. While not weighing in on Linger's endorsement of Phares, Gayle Manchin said she wants to revisit the superintendent's duties before launching any national search for a permanent successor.

"What is the criteria for the state superintendent in this state? Does it reflect the type of individual that is needed for the job?" Manchin said Tuesday. "There may need to be some changes made there, in order to bring us candidates of the most qualified nature to apply for the job... I'm not necessarily saying we're opening a national search tomorrow or the next day. I think we hire someone who assumes the role and then we carefully look at the criteria as it stands."

The board unanimously voted to hire Marple in March 2011 after a lengthy process that also identified two other finalists. The board had evaluated Marple's performance and rated it "good" in June, according to minutes of that meeting. Marple told The Associated Press the day she was fired that the vote caught her by surprise. "I had received only words of encouragement," she told AP.

Board members have been drafting proposed additions and changes to the audit since September, department spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said Tuesday. The board expects to discuss those proposals before voting on a final document to send to the Legislature, Cordeiro said.

"I want the governor and the Legislature to know that they have a state board that wants to work with them to set the direction and the tone for improving student achievement," Gayle Manchin said of the board's response, adding, "We need to push services down from the state more to the county and local level. I do not think that the resources are not where they are needed."