Robert Baker, chairman of the West Virginia Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, addressed those who initially voted to fire Marple Nov. 15 as "the gang of five," and said the odds are against them. He said the board knowingly violated the Open Meetings Act, even after receiving legal advice.
Judy Hale, president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers, said the state board had damaged their integrity over the way Marple was let go, but is encouraged by the promise of a thorough search for her replacement.
State Board of Education President Wade Linger talks with board legal counsel Heather Deskins before the board entered a closed session on Thursday. Board members voted 6-2 to fire state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple, which reaffirmed an earlier vote.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The West Virginia Board of Education voted again to fire state Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple in a special meeting Thursday, which reaffirmed her unexpected termination on Nov. 15.
Board members also voted to conduct a thorough, nationwide search for her replacement, despite board President Wade Linger's recommendation earlier this month to hire Randolph County Superintendent Jim Phares.
People packed Thursday's meeting, which was scheduled to revisit Marple's firing after legal counsel advised that the board's actions might have violated the state's Open Meetings Act.
Linger and members Gayle Manchin, Robert Dunlevy, William White, Michael Green and Lloyd Jackson voted to terminate Marple on Thursday. All of those members, except Jackson, also voted to fire Marple on Nov. 15. Jackson was at Disney World with his family during the first vote.
Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips stuck by their word to support Marple. The two board members announced plans to resign after Marple was fired and again voted against her termination at Thursday's meeting.
"We have received lots of reaction from the public asking us to give more detail about a very difficult decision the board made two weeks ago," Linger said. "Providing the reasons for any termination often runs afoul to advice and caution given from other circles. Nonetheless, it is our duty to be as open as possible with the public. We need to provide more explanation than we have to date."
In addition to low graduation rates and poor test scores, Linger cited as reasons for firing Marple a lack of urgency to address issues, too many excuses and not enough action. He also cited as major reasons a lack of suggestions to even solve problems and "people being defensive."
Phares had seemed the front-runner to replace Marple even Thursday, as the meeting agenda listed action for an "oath of office." Linger recommended that Phares replace Marple the same day she was fired, and Phares had announced intentions of resigning from his current position.
News that the state board would conduct a nationwide search came as a relief to many who had voiced their concerns about Marple's sudden ouster. Twenty people stood before the board members on Thursday and urged them to rethink their decision.
"One of the primary themes heard today was the importance that if we did decide to move along to a new superintendent, that we do a serious, nationwide search," Linger said. "After hearing all of those comments, I recommend the board definitely go down that path."
But changes need to be made to state law regarding the qualification requirements to become superintendent of schools, Linger said. Superintendents must have a master's degree in education administration, and in the past that has limited candidates for the job, he said.
Phillips was relieved by the decision to conduct a nationwide search.
"I somewhat expected that there would be a superintendent named and a swearing in, so I was surprised," she said. "I really hope that the public can regain some of its trust in the board and that the board will now be more open from now on."
Chuck Heinlein, Marple's former second in command, will continue to serve as state superintendent for now.
The public's sense of mistrust was palpable at Thursday's meeting. Those in attendance were outraged by the board's decision to twice move into closed session.
On Nov. 15, the board also spent more than an hour in executive session without Marple. At that meeting, Linger announced an amendment to the agenda and passed a piece of paper around to the board members, requesting that her termination go into effect immediately.
The state Open Meetings Law prohibits public bodies from taking action on matters not posted in their published meeting agenda and prohibits amending agendas within two business days of the scheduled meeting, except for emergencies.
A pending lawsuit, filed by a public interest group, asks the Supreme Court to declare the board's decision to fire Marple invalid and block the members from appointing a new superintendent.
State law says that if the state board holds a new meeting and opens it to the public for "free and full" discussion - as it did Thursday -- it can resolve any Open Meetings Act violations.
Linger told those in the audience that the law allows a closed session to discuss personnel matters.
Heather Deskins, the board's legal counsel, said an executive session does not legally have to be listed on the board's agenda.
"But that doesn't mean you have to do it," said Julian Martin, a 76-year-old retired teacher from Lincoln County who accused the board of firing Marple at the request of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. "I can't believe you're going through this again."
Martin believes the firing was Manchin's revenge against Marple's husband, Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who lost his re-election bid Nov. 6.
Several Capitol police offers were asked to monitor the board meeting after Martin and White got into a heated debate just before the board entered its first closed session.
Leaders of the state's teachers unions, Dale Lee and Judy Hale, praised Marple's work and asked the board to be more transparent about their reasons for firing her.
"I am pleased now. They were really premature in naming who they were planning to put in as superintendent," Hale said. "That's not an objection to Dr. Phares, but people in West Virginia deserve a search.
"Still, the board has lost a great deal of credibility and they've got a lot to prove to the public and need to build up some trust," she said.
Hale also was dismayed that four board members - Gayle Manchin, Dunlevy, Green and Phillips - attended the meeting by phone.
Lee blamed political goals of "the Manchin faction" on the board for Marple's firing. Before the decision to broaden the search for her replacement, he called the board's actions "unlawful and despicable."
While he was governor, Manchin appointed five of the six board members who voted to fire Marple, with the exception of Jackson.
"The only reason you're clearing the air now is because of the lawsuit. It appears to the public you've already chosen a successor ... someone who will do exactly as you say without questions," Lee said.
The board is required to respond to the lawsuit's allegations by today.
Robert Baker, chairman of the West Virginia Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, addressed those who initially voted to fire Marple Nov. 15 as "the gang of five," and said the odds are against them.
He said the board knowingly violated the Open Meetings Act, even after receiving legal advice.
"You shut the door on a lot of people," Baker said. "You can't reconsider an illegal act and thereby make it legal."
Early on in the meeting, Phillips and Haden asked to delay any action on Marple's position until a decision was reached regarding the lawsuit. That request was denied.
By the meeting's end, Linger issued an apology to the crowd.
"I have learned a lot of lessons over the past couple of weeks. I am just a businessman who was asked to serve on this state board," he said. "I can see now why a lot of people don't want to serve in state government. I approached this matter as a lot of businessmen would and I have now learned that you cannot always do that in the public sector.
"Despite the difficulty of these decisions, I believe this is the right thing to do," he said. "If I have made any mistakes over the past couple of weeks, I apologize to the people of West Virginia. It was always my intent to do the best I could for the students."
The board will revisit the issue at next month's meeting, when a new temporary superintendent to step in for Heinlein could be appointed. Reach Mackenzie Mays at email@example.com or 304-348-4814.