State education board will vote again on Marple
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The West Virginia Board of Education will reconsider the firing of Superintendent Jorea Marple so that "the public voice continues to be heard," according to a news release issued late Tuesday.
Last week, board members voted 5-2 to fire Marple, a move that caught many in the education community by surprise.
After an emergency meeting later that day, the board determined it would talk about hiring her replacement at a meeting today.
On Monday it said that discussion would be put off until a special meeting slated for Nov. 29.
On Tuesday the board announced it also would reconsider Marple's termination at that meeting.
The board also will include public comment in a discussion concerning "reconsideration of termination of state superintendent of schools."
While the board is expected again to fire Marple, the decision could be complicated by the heads-up the public now has.
Before Thursday, few people knew Marple was to be ousted. Now, with the advance notice, unions and other Marple supporters can muster their forces, pack the meeting and sharply challenge the board.
The decision to fire Marple was not listed on last week's meeting agenda, and Marple said she had no idea she was going to be fired until moments before the vote.
State law requires advance notice of such actions except in cases of emergencies that endanger public safety or the state's coffers. Some question whether the board's action violated that law.
Theresa Kirk, head of the state Ethics Commission, said a 2005 opinion from her agency allows state-run boards to redo actions taken at meetings that do not comply with the Open Meetings Act.
The opinion found that "any violation of the act, even an inadvertent failure to issue an agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting" could force legal action that reverses a decision made at a non-compliant meeting. The opinion also notes board members who intentionally violate the law can be criminally prosecuted.
But the Ethics Commission offered a remedy for boards that have violated the law.
"However, this committee finds that a violation of the act can be rectified, if a governing body takes reasonable remedial measures over and above ceremonial and perfunctory ratification of the official action previously taken," the opinion said.
No one from the department or board is saying last week's actions violated any laws. However, board President Wade Linger said in a statement it is important to address the concern.
"As we move forward with significant education reform, it is paramount that the public voice continues to be heard. I have been advised by counsel that there may be concerns over the Open Meetings Act and we want to be responsive," the statement said.
Board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden did not support firing Marple and announced they would resign in protest.
When contacted Tuesday evening, Haden said she hadn't heard about the changes to next week's meeting. Phillips questioned Linger's statement.
"It's a little late, ya know?" Phillips said, specifically citing Linger's statements about informing the public. "Should have been concerned about that before."
She pointed to the rest of the agenda as a sign that nothing will change: The board still will discuss hiring a new superintendent, and an "oath of office" is included after that discussion.
"I don't know why they're having the meeting; they might as well administer the oath of office. It's ridiculous," Phillips said.
Phillips said the board appears to lack transparency, a sentiment echoed by Haden and former board member Lowell Johnson.
Within hours of Marple's firing on Thursday, the board called a special meeting during which Linger suggested hiring James Phares, currently the superintendent of Randolph County, as Marple's replacement.
In an interview Monday, Haden said she thought the moves by Linger were "orchestrated" and questionable.
Haden and Johnson, whose nine-year term on the board expired Nov. 4, also referred to a decision at the October regular meeting in regard to transparency. Haden said she called Linger before the October meeting and told him she wanted to discuss something and that it was something she knew he did not agree with.
The meeting was Oct. 3-4 at Buffalo High School in Putnam County. Before the start of the meeting on Oct. 4, Linger told board secretary Virginia Harris not to record the meeting. Haden said she remembers a large debate with Linger and believes it was in regard to the board's response to the education efficiency audit.
Both Haden and Johnson said Linger failed to tell the board the meeting was not being recorded.
Emails and recordings obtained by the Daily Mail through a Freedom of Information Act request verify the second day of the meeting was not recorded.
At 9:08 a.m. Oct. 4, Harris sent Linger an email saying she had ceased recording the meetings as per his direction. At 10:15 a.m., Marple emailed Harris to ask if she was recording the meeting. Harris replied shortly thereafter, saying Linger "directed me prior to the beginning of today's meeting to cease the recording of meetings."
Marple and Harris also exchanged emails about how the process of recording meetings had started. In an email Linger sent Oct. 12 to Harris, he told her to "please start recording meetings of the West Virginia Board of Education again." The rest of the board members and Board Liaison Donna Peduto were also included in the email.
It was the last meeting of Johnson's nine-year term but the first he could remember that wasn't recorded. He said meetings had been recorded for 20 years, and he didn't know why Linger would not want to record this meeting.
"After all of the things that have taken place, it would seem to me that the president of the board is not in favor of transparency," Johnson said. "When you shut off the tapes like that, what you're basically saying is, 'I don't want the public to know.' "
Linger could not be reached by phone but responded to messages with a statement issued by the department.
"I learned that neither state law nor state board policy required that meetings be recorded so I thought we would do it differently during the October meeting. However, I learned that the recording was important to people, especially the board's executive secretary as she utilizes them in preparing meeting minutes," Linger said in the statement.
He said he "immediately asked" recordings to continue, with plans to try to stream the audio from meetings online.
Board member Gayle Manchin said Monday she didn't think there was any nefarious intent by Linger. She said she can't remember what was discussed but thought Linger had made a statement that he was not recording the meeting. If it had just been made via email, she wouldn't have known about it, she said.
"We have public meetings . . . press is there from beginning to end. I find our meetings very transparent, and I don't think that there has ever been an issue with that, and it's interesting that it's coming up now," she said Tuesday in a phone interview.
Manchin said she didn't know why anyone would bring up the October meeting now. Phillips said she didn't know why the board wasn't communicating with her or Haden.
The board is scheduled to meet this afternoon to discuss its response to the education audit. One focus for the board and department is building a communication structure, according to a different statement from Linger.
Staff Writer Ry Rivard contributed to this report.