CHARLESTON (AP) - Despite facing harsh criticism for a recent decision to dismiss the leader of West Virginia's public schools, the state Board of Education on Thursday affirmed its split vote to fire Jorea Marple as superintendent, citing a need to change direction after chronically poor student performance.
But the board held off on hiring a permanent replacement during a meeting that included a lengthy pair of closed-door executive sessions. Board President Wade Linger said it would resume the hiring discussion in December, citing calls to revamp the job's duties and search for a successor nationally. Chuck Heinlein, who was a deputy superintendent, will continue to head the department in the meantime, the board decided.
Two former board members, at least seven active or retired educators and leaders of groups representing teachers, principals and school workers were among the 19 speakers who on Thursday praised Marple, denounced her firing or called for her reinstatement.
Photo by Anthony Gaynor
The meeting room for the West Virginia Board of Education meeting Thursday was packed as more than 20 people took advantage of the meeting’s public comment portion. Everyone who spoke condemned the board for the firing of former Superintendent Jorea Marple, asking the board to reconsider its decision.
Photo by Anthony Gaynor
West Virginia Board of Education President Wade Linger consults with Department of Education attorney Heather Hutchens.
"While it's your right to hire and fire at will, we are shocked at Dr. Marple's abrupt termination, and the manner in which it was conducted," said Jenny Santilli, a Harrison County foreign language teacher.
After a public comment period, the board met privately for about 90 minutes, and then President Wade Linger called for Thursday's vote. The board had scheduled the do-over amid concerns that its Nov. 15 actions violated the state open meetings law.
On Thursday, Lloyd Jackson joined the five fellow board members who had voted Nov. 15 to oust Marple. As they had on Nov. 15, board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden opposed Marple's firing.
Following a second, 75-minute executive session, the board decided to postpone any hiring decision. When Marple was initially fired, Linger had endorsed Randolph County schools chief James Phares for the job.
After affirming Marple's firing, the board adopted a statement from Linger that referred to how state students score below the national average on 21 of the 24 indicators of student performance as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Education Week recently flunked West Virginia for K-12 student achievement, Linger also said, while one in four high school students fail to graduate on time if at all.
"We are not saying that Superintendent Marple is any more responsible than governors, legislators, educators or board members for these shortcomings. We are not here to affix the blame," Linger said. But he later added, "The board determined that in order to fix these problems, we need to head in a new direction with new leadership."
Amid these struggles, Linger also said that board members found no sense of urgency at the Department of Education. He alleged the department had stonewalled or offered excuses when pressed to change.
But several of the public speakers noted that Marple had carried out numerous recommendations from what state officials consider a roadmap for improving education: the recent audit of the public schools system.
Commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the audit described a system with plenty of bureaucrats and ample funding but short on accountability and results. Its scores of recommendations seek to refocus staff, dollars and other resources to improve chronically lagging student performance.
The board endorsed all but a handful of the audit's proposals at a meeting last week, and presented its response to a House-Senate education subcommittee on Tuesday. That response lists more than 70 steps taken under Marple that responded to or mesh with the audit's recommendations.
After the vote to affirm Marple's firing, Haden noted how the public speakers had called her a dedicated educator, a visionary and an innovative problem-solver.
"Dr. Marple is and was an excellent superintendent," Haden said.
Both she and Phillips have said they'll resign at the end of the year over the firing.
The board's 5-2 dismissal of Marple came about 19 months after it unanimously selected her following a lengthy search process. As the topic had not appeared on the Nov. 15 meeting's agenda, a pending legal challenge by a pair of school parents asks the Supreme Court to void Marple's firing by alleging the board violated the open meetings law. A response from the board to that filing is due Friday.