BOE mulls response to Tomblin audit

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Courtesy of Saturday Gazette Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the West Virginia Board of Education finally readies to respond to a statewide audit of the public school system, some officials worry that the recent drama within administration will put yet another bump in the road.

For months, the board went back and forth about how to respond to the governor’s $750,000 audit, which recommends a range of major educational changes, and board president Wade Linger has continued to delay an official response, saying the board needed time if it wanted to get it right.

A special meeting is scheduled this week to reveal a draft of the response.

Linger said there will be four primary areas of focus for the response, with the top priority being increasing student achievement.

He said West Virginia students rank below the national average in many categories and received an “F” in the most recent report released by Education Week. The state’s graduation rate is 78 percent, and one in four students does not graduate on time.

“These are statistics that must be turned around,” he said.

Other main goals include revitalizing the connection with local school systems and “building mutual trust,” moving forward with the audit response and committing to transparency, and communicating better with the Department of Education, the state Legislature and the Governor’s Office.

“I really appreciate the input that’s come in from the board on this thing. The next version of the draft is what I personally hope is the last version of the draft, but we won’t know that until the board looks at it. We’re going to get it out to you soon enough to get your comments back — assuming there are any,” Linger told the board Thursday before giving them the draft. “Let’s get this thing put to bed.”

This exchange, however, came just before an item was unexpectedly added to the board’s agenda — to terminate state schools superintendent Jorea Marple.

The 5-2 vote to fire Marple, who had held the position only a year and half, has rocked the state’s education system, causing two board members — Priscilla Haden and Jenny Phillips — to tender their resignations from the panel.

Now, a new topic will be the focus of Wednesday’s special meeting. Linger plans to also use the time to recommend Jim Phares, Randolph County’s superintendent, for the position.

Phillips said, with all of the talk about reform that came with creating a response for the audit, no displeasure with Marple’s performance was ever mentioned.

“We went through the audit page by page,” she said. “At no time did I ever hear anybody say that Dr. Marple was an impediment to making this happen. As a matter of fact, she had already accomplished many of the things that were in the audit.”

The audit, released nearly a year ago and conducted by Pennsylvania consulting firm Public Works LLC, calls for innovation and lists new strategies that could save the state up to $90 million a year, if followed.

“Newly-appointed Superintendent Jorea Marple and the state Board of Education are examining the WVDE organization and working to assess its effectiveness. In the past six months, Marple has instituted a broad internal management and accountability system to focus, streamline and coordinate the work of WVDE staff,” the audit states. “Upon assuming leadership of the WVDE, Superintendent Marple focused almost immediately on how to bring West Virginia’s schools into the 21st Century through targeted initiatives, including the use of technology.”

Phillips said Marple was well on her way to adhering to many of the audit’s recommendations.

“A lot of the things in the audit required legislative changes, but she had already accepted [the idea] to reorganize the department as suggested. She had made a lot of starts,” Phillips said. “They say now is the time to change leadership. I have no idea what that means. It seems to me that this is the worst time for change.”

Prior to Marple’s termination at last Thursday’s meeting, concerns arose about Linger’s direction for the board.

Linger suggested the board hire an independent legal counsel, in addition to the Department of Education’s two attorneys.

The current process of sharing legal help with the department puts employees in “a compromising and sensitive position,” Linger said.

Board member Gayle Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., supported the suggestion.

“You are asking a person to work between two worlds,” she said. “In most states, state boards have their own legal counsel, separate from the department of education.”

However, other members expressed concern about the cost of adding another salary to the board. The board already has hired an outside consultant to help draft the response to the audit, as per Linger’s request, and has been paying the new staffer $350 a day since August.

Among its suggestions, the audit calls for “right-sizing” the department and cites too much administrative overhead.

“Perception is sometimes reality. The very thing in the audit was about the Department of Education being too big and having too much personnel. So, the board has added a special assistant and now an attorney? Are we falling into adding staff when the audit says the department has too much staff?” Phillips said. “The public sees us doing one thing on one hand and something completely different on the other.”

Board member Bill White understood Phillip’s apprehension.

“We need to be clear why we’re doing it so that the public knows,” he said.

Haden considered Linger’s suggestion a direct insult to the two attorneys already working for the board.

“We can trust our legal counsel,” she said. “Do we not trust the Attorney General’s Office or do we not get the answer we always want? I cannot support this. I think our attorneys simply read the law, and they don’t interpret their personal views.”

Linger said the board needs an additional attorney because it helps create a more clear distinction between the board and the Department of Education.

“The paradigm is the thought process that comes with the view that we are part of the Department of Education. The Board of Education is a separate constitutional entity. The department is two layers down from us on the organizational chart,” he said. “Very well-intentioned and honest people could be put in a position where they have to make a decision whether they want to recommend a position the board is trying to take that conflicts with the people who write their paychecks. That’s not fair to them.”

Board member Michael Green asked to look further into the proposal.

“It has nothing to do with trust,” he said. “It has to do with knowing the facts — like how much it’s going to cost.”

Lowell Johnson, who served on the board for nine years before his term expired earlier this month, said Marple was moving the education department in the right direction before she was fired and that this was another example of Linger making “a power grab.”

“The two attorneys at the Department of Education are telling him he can’t do it that way, so he wants somebody to tell him he can,” Johnson said. “[Marple] had already reduced 20 staff members in the department. She was working to downsize.

“The problems in the audit weren’t her fault,” Johnson added. “What was it that she needed to do? What more can a superintendent do?”

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