State Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares served at his last school board meeting on Wednesday.
Phares was hired in January 2013 on a short-term basis after Jorea Marple, the superintendent at the time, was fired by the board.
The board is now searching for a next superintendent and has hired a search firm to conduct a nationwide search for candidates.
Phares spoke Wednesday about the state Department of Education’s accomplishments during his short tenure, despite funding shortfalls and controversy surrounding Marple’s firing.
“It has not been an easy 18 months,” Phares said, noting the department has kept students in mind throughout the controversy.
Phares said that while the department has had to cut back staff and some resources, things are looking up for West Virginia public schools.
“This isn’t a self advertisement,” he said. “This is an acknowledgment of the work we’ve done together.”
The state’s high school graduation rate has increased by 2 percent since 2007 — moving it up to 80 percent, which is higher than 22 states, he said.
Phares said that with more focused state resources, school turnarounds in troubled districts are possible.
Richwood High School, for example, was one of the worst performing schools in the state in 2011.
Since then, there has been a concerted effort by community and state leaders to improve performance. The school received recognition from U.S. News and World Report this year, and has been featured on PBS news.
Phares said the state has stopped emphasizing compliance with rigid standards and has better focused resources and fostered more collaboration between parties.
Phares also hailed the implementation of the state’s Feed to Achieve Act, that allows local districts to expand free and reduced lunch programs to all students, regardless of family income.
He also lauded the state’s expansion of universal pre-kindergarten, agreements with Microsoft for new technology and expansion of student data collection while implementing privacy safeguards.
On Wednesday Phares also pushed for the state to lobby for more funding to implement SB 359, the state’s education reform bill passed in 2013.
State school board member Tom Campbell said that targeting problems and focusing resources has improved but adequately funding programs in the future will test whether “we can put our money where our mouth is.”
Gayle Manchin, state school board president, said that collaboration and partnership with local and fellow state agencies has been the greatest difference since Phares took over as superintendent.
Also at Wednesday’s meeting:
n Patsy Holliday, Fayette County school board member-elect, spoke out against Fayette County Schools consolidations and the state’s takeover of the district two years ago, saying that it has not led to improvements for the district.
n Norma Hurley, Gilmer County school board member-elect, and board member William Simmons, said the state-controlled district will end up paying more than the appraised value of land for the new Cedar Creek Elementary School without receiving the mineral rights. Simmons said local officials have failed to communicate the project’s aims with the community. Ronald Blankenship, the district’s superintendent, said that the land’s price is justified, mainly because of the site’s central location and relatively flat area. The board unanimously approved the district spending $446,595 for the 83-acre property.
n Ted Mattern, a liason with the state superintendent’s office, delivered a report on Logan County Schools citing a “lack of direction.” The report gave strategies to improve performance within six months. Phares said he was “shocked” at the district’s lack of direction.
n The board voted to begin the process of eliminating a $600 salary supplement to Calhoun County district personnel because of consistent budget shortfalls. State school board member Lloyd Jackson said it was a “sad day” that the board had to cut salaries because attracting teachers to rural counties is hard enough.