CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New state schools Superintendent Jim Phares plans to push initiatives that bolster vocational education programs, move professional development closer to classrooms, and give counties more flexibility in setting their school schedules.Phares outlined the initiatives Tuesday during a presentation to state lawmakers."I'm excited about this process," said Phares, who was sworn in as superintendent last week. "The one common word we cling to is change. People are expecting it."Phares replaced Jorea Marple, who was fired abruptly in November.In recent days, Phares has met with county superintendents, school board members and teachers union leaders."We did more listening than we did talking," Phares said.At the top of his "to-do" list: enhancing career and technical education programs. Educators suggested that such programs could start in middle schools."They understand it's important for jobs," he said.Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, endorsed the technical education initiative, which he said will also help improve students' math and science skills."When kids . . . understand what they like to do, they can have ownership and grow from that," Williams said. "It gives students an opportunity . . . to learn from their hands."Phares said he supports shifting professional development funds to Regional Education Service Agencies and county school systems. Local school boards would have more control over teacher and principal training programs, he said."They want fewer 'shalls' and 'shall nots,'" said Phares, who delivered a monthly superintendents report to a House-Senate education committee Tuesday.Several state legislators said they support allowing RESAs to lead professional development programs. The proposal also was made in a comprehensive education audit released last year."[RESAs] have a wealth of knowledge and experience that we're not tapping into," said Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam.County school officials also have told Phares they want more flexibility with school calendars. Some school systems want to spread the 180-day school year beyond the current nine-month window that runs from August through May."We have unique counties," Phares said. "All of their needs are different."Phares told lawmakers that the state Board of Education wants to play a more active role in improving West Virginia's schools. The board also wants to work more closely with county school boards, he said.Legislators encouraged Phares to target student truancy -- an issue the state Supreme Court and Legislature have been addressing through several initiatives over the past year."If they're not in school," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, "we don't even have a chance to get them to completion."Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.