LAWRENCE MESSINA,Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Citing chronically poor student performance ratings, West Virginia's Board of Education again voted to fire Jorea Marple as state schools superintendent Thursday after fielding harsh criticism over her dismissal.
Two former board members and at least seven active or retired teachers were among the 19 speakers who praised Marple, denounced her firing or called for her reinstatement during the meeting's 90-minute public comment period.
"While it's your right to hire and fire at will, we are shocked at Dr. Marple's abrupt termination, and the manner in which it was conducted," said Jenny Santilli, a Harrison County foreign language teacher who spoke on behalf of the state's association of those educators as its president.
Lloyd Jackson joined the five fellow board members who had voted Nov. 15 to oust Marple. President Wade Linger called for Thursday's vote after a lengthy closed-door session that followed the public comments. The board later adopted as its position a statement read by Linger that, among other factors, referred to how state students score below the national average on 21 of the 24 indicators of student performance as reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The board then again met privately to discuss hiring a new superintendent. Linger has endorsed Randolph County schools chief James Phares for the job.
As they had on Nov. 15, board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden opposed Marple's firing. After Thursday's vote, Haden noted how the public speakers had called Marple a visionary and an innovative problem-solver.
"Dr. Marple is and was an excellent superintendent," Haden said.
Both she and Phillips have said they'll resign at the end of the year over firing and how it was handled.
The board's 5-2 dismissal of Marple came about 19 months after it unanimously selected her following a lengthy search process. As the topic did not appear on that meeting's agenda, the board scheduled Thursday's do-over amid concerns it had violated the state open meetings law. Alleging such a violation, a subsequent legal challenge by a pair of school parents asks the Supreme Court to void Marple's firing.
Robert Baker, a Beckley lawyer, warned the five anti-Marple board members they could face criminal misdemeanor charges by willfully flouting the open meetings law. He cited the conviction of his county's school board members 30 years ago for such a violation. Baker also said that the convictions were later overturned on a technicality.
"When you don't put something on the agenda and then deal with, you essentially shut the door on all the people who wanted to come and talk about that issue," said Baker.
Baker later prompted applause from the standing-room-only audience when he added that "You can't reconsider an illegal act and thereby make it legal."
The speakers also sought detailed reasons for Marple's firing, with several alleging political backroom dealings. As Linger did Thursday, board members had earlier cited the need for a change. One, Gayle Manchin, has also said her vote reflected her desire to embrace the recent audit of West Virginia's public schools system and concerns over a deep-seated culture she finds at the state Department of Education.
Commissioned by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the audit described a system with plenty of bureaucrats and ample funding but short on accountability and results. Its scores of recommendations seek to refocus staff, dollars and other resources to improve chronically lagging student performance. The proposals call on the state to shift control and money to the 55 county school systems and reduce seniority's weight in teacher hiring and promotion, among other actions.
The board endorsed all but a handful of the recommendations at a meeting last week, and presented its response to the audit to a House-Senate education subcommittee on Tuesday. That response lists more than 70 actions carried out under Marple drawn from or otherwise inspired by the audit's recommendations, something noted by several speakers Thursday.