The West Virginia Board of Education announced Nov. 15 that it has fired state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple by a 5-2 vote. The two board members who voted against Marple's dismissal, Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips, subsequently announced that they were resigning from the board effective Dec. 31.
The Associated Press reports that since Marple, whom the board appointed to the top schools spot in March 2011, was an at-will employee, the board doesn't have to provide a reason for her termination. However, in a statement also reported by the AP, board president L. Wade Linger Jr., while praising Marple for her public service, also said, "The West Virginia Board of Education believes this is a time for a change in direction. As such, we think it is important for new leadership."
The Charleston Gazette reported that upon being fired, Marple told the board: "I think that it's important to say that all of the data I have provided the state Board of Education through my evaluation has clearly indicated enormous progress in increasing what children need to know, increasing our expectations for what children need to know and how we expect them to behave."
There was also a report of a testy exchange in which Linger addressed her as "Mrs. Marple" and Marple shot back "It's Dr. Marple," before leaving. In an interview with the AP, Marple said she was surprised at being fired, and that she had tried during her tenure to "identify issues" like ways to fund schools.
I've contacted both Haden and Phillips for comment, but so far haven't heard back. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, had this to say in a statement: "I'd like to thank Dr. Marple for her outstanding service to the students of West Virginia. She has worked tirelessly over the last several decades and has truly put her heart into improving our state's education system."
Via WOWK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Charleston, the West Virginia Education Association, a state affiliate of the National Education Association, put out a statement from its president Dale Lee that strongly criticized the board's decision and appeared to place blame at the feet of former Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, now a U.S. senator for the state: "WVEA is appalled at the actions of the Manchin appointees on the State Board of Education. Dr. Jorea Marple has done a great job during her short term as state superintendent of schools. ... The actions of the BOE (Board of Education) appear to be politically motivated, and that is a shame."
But there was also an "efficiency audit" of the state's K-12 public schools, released in January of this year, that said, as part of the summary: "We start with the fact that West Virginia has one of the most highly centralized and impermeable education systems in the country: No other state education system is so highly regulated in code and is constitutionally separate from the executive and legislative branches of government."
There's also the audit's dim assessment of West Virginia's place, and pace of change, in the K-12 landscape: "Across America, schools, school districts, and states are reforming and modernizing their systems of education. It is time for West Virginia to do so, as well."
This audit, done at the direction of the recently re-elected Tomblin, was highlighted by political columnist Hoppy Kercheval, who said board members like Linger are now pushing for reform, don't like the way Marple reacted to this push and, in Kercheval's view, tried to protect the state department's turf, even if the audit didn't really explicitly bash Marple herself.
"He (Linger) and Marple frequently butted heads behind the scenes as he tried to craft a response to the audit," Kercheval wrote. "I suspect if Marple had been willing to embrace change, like other progressive school systems across the country, she would still have a job."
You may recall that we did a multifaceted story on West Virginia's schools in McDowell County and how a variety of public and private groups were intervening there in order to improve public education there, in an effort similar to the Harlem Children's Zone Initiative. Do Tomblin, Linger, and others want to see similar efforts on a statewide basis with a more "modernizing" state superintendent at the helm?
When the state board (at the time led by Haden) picked Marple, the Charleston Gazette reported last year, one of the other finalists was Mark Manchin, the executive director of the state School Building Authority and a cousin of Joe Manchin. Gayle Manchin, who is vice president of the state school board (and is mentioned in our McDowell County story), is Joe Manchin's wife. Joe Manchin appointed both his wife and his cousin to their respective public offices. The WVEA has previously said Gayle Manchin should have stayed out of the last superintendent's search in which Marple was eventually hired. However, note that in the article, Haden, one of the board members who has quit in protest over Marple's hiring, said that there was no law requiring Gayle Manchin to recuse herself from the search.
Linger was also appointed by Joe Manchin, as were board members Robert Dunlevy, William White, Michael Green, and Phillips.
So do the board members, as Linger said, simply want a more aggressive, higher-profile state superintendent to take the place of Marple, who was deputy state superintendent before assuming the top education post? It's hard to argue that there isn't at least some momentum for big school policy changes in the state, but maybe that's not all there is to the story.
Photo: West Virginia State School Superintendent Jorea Marple appears before the state School Board last year in Charleston, W.Va. (Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette/AP-File)