Tom Miller: Firing of state superintendent viewed as politics
The latest West Virginia state government "soap opera" centers on a recent abrupt decision by five members of the State Board of Education to fire State School Superintendent Jorea Marple. That vote came nine days after her husband-- Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw -- lost his $95,000-a-year job in the Nov. 6 general election.
McGraw had been serving as attorney general for the past 20 years and was ambushed in this election by business interests outside the state who backed Republican nominee Patrick Morrissey, who moved to this state's Eastern Panhandle only days before filing for the office. The Center for Individual Freedom, started as a tobacco lobby in Washington, D. C., spent $1.6 million in its campaign to defeat McGraw.
The plot thickened last Wednesday when Mountain State Justice attorneys, representing the parents of a four-grade special-needs child, asked the State Supreme Court to declare the firing of Marple void because it was done illegally and against the advice of the board's attorney.
A second vote to fire Marple has now been scheduled for Thursday (Nov. 29) after board members realized they violated the state's open meeting laws at the earlier meeting. This time a required public notice of the agenda was posted in advance of the meeting later this week for "reconsideration of termination of state superintendent of schools including public comment and the consideration of hiring a new state superintendent."
It's all politics. Members of the State Board of Education appointed by U. S. Sen. Joe Manchin while he was governor -- including his wife -- suddenly decided to go into closed session at the first meeting. President Wade Linger and the other four appointed by Manchin -- Bill White, Bob Dunlevy, Mike Green and Gayle Manchin -- then voted to fire Marple.
The two remaining members, Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden, who voted to keep Marple now plan to resign. Jenny Phillips' husband, Bill, later told a reporter the decision to fire Marple was a "despicable and senseless action." He also said Linger had already told board members that James Phares would replace Marple.
Phares, currently superintendent of Randolph County Schools, told the Elkins newspaper that he will ask the Randolph County Board of Education to accept his resignation. Previously, Phares was quoted as saying "I am honored and humbled that I am going to be considered" for the job of state superintendent of schools.
Marple previously served as Kanawha County's superintendent of schools before going to work at the state Department of Education as deputy superintendent. She became state superintendent of schools in March of 2011. Her annual salary is $165,000.
The state board of education also has finally made it's response to a $750,000 education efficiency audit of this state's public school system. Members of the state legislature, in Charleston for three days of monthly interim committee meetings this week, will no doubt want more information from the board on their response as well as an update on the reasons Marple was fired.
The board has named deputy superintendent Chuck Heinlein to serve as state superintendent of schools until a "longer-term individual" is named.
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As members of the West Virginia House of Delegates meet in Charleston this week for three days of legislative interim committee meetings, it will be interesting to see if some grumbling about the current leadership of House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, intensifies or fizzles.
Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, one of the "back-row" Democrats, claims he's had "numerous conversations" with other Democrat delegates who worry the party could lose control of the House if Thompson is re-elected for another two-year term as Speaker at the party caucus later this year.
Democrats had a 72-28 majority when Thompson was elected to his first two-year term as Speaker in 2007. But that margin has been dropping and Republicans, who had 35 of the 100 seats in the House during the past two years, will have 46 of the 100 seats for the next two years -- the largest number since the Great Depression.
It may be a long shot but if Skaff and at least four other Democrats join forces with the Republicans, they could decide who will be House Speaker for the next two years. Delegate Harry K. Smith, D-Mingo, was the only member of the current House leadership team endorsed by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and Steve Roberts, who is Chamber president, said recently he's certain Democrats are considering a change. So presumably Smith is the most likely alternative.
Current state tax commissioner Craig Griffith announced earlier this month that he wants to return to the private sector after spending more than five years working in the state tax department. He served as deputy tax commissioner from June of 2007 and moved up to his present role in 2010 when former commissioner Chris Morris decided to return to private sector employment.
But he has to deal with one major problem. State ethics laws do not allow public officials to seek a job with businesses or firms that they regulate. As tax commissioner, Griffith regulates every tax-paying business and organization that is headquartered in the state or does business here. So he has applied for and received a temporary exemption from state Ethics Commission Executive Director Theresa Kirk on Nov. 9. Members of the Ethics Commission are expected to grant a full exemption at their next meeting in December. . .
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.