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State school board hires new superintendent

HAMLIN, W.Va. - Jim Phares will be West Virginia's next superintendent of schools. How long he will serve in the position remains unclear.

Members of the state Board of Education unanimously selected Phares to assume the state's top education spot at a meeting Wednesday at Lincoln County High School. They also agreed to conduct a national search for a long-term superintendent.

Phares, who currently serves as superintendent of Randolph County Schools, takes over on Jan. 2.

"I love this state, and I believe in every student in this state. That's why I stand before you tonight," Phares told board members at the meeting.

On Nov. 15, board members voted 5-2 to fire Superintendent Jorea Marple. That provoked outcries from many in the education community and a lawsuit alleging a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The board held a meeting Nov. 29 to clear up such concerns, although it denied any wrongdoing. It voted to fire Marple again at that meeting.

Deputy Superintendent Chuck Heinlein has been serving as superintendent since then.

Hours after voting to fire Marple the first time, board President Wade Linger nominated Phares. The board eventually voted to have a national search, but Phares was invited back to the Nov. 29 meeting in case the board decided to hire him then.

On Wednesday, board members interviewed Phares and Kathy D'Antoni, an assistant state superintendent, during the eight-hour-long meeting.

Board members interviewed both candidates before the vote. Although D'Antoni elected to conduct her interview in private, Phares said he thought their answers were probably very similar.

He was questioned publicly on spending, leadership and a recent audit of the state's education system. He thought the board made a "bold statement" by hiring someone outside of the department.

"I don't have any state department experience. What I am is a voice from the counties, and I bring a totally different perspective," he said.

Phares has also served as superintendent in Pocahontas and Marion counties.

"My wife is still going to live in Elkins and I'm going to live down here," Phares said. "This isn't a long-term arrangement by any means. I don't know how long it will take to flesh out the whole process for the national search . . . but I'm willing to serve and work as hard as I can. . ."

Board members also want the state Legislature to eliminate certain job requirements for state superintendent. They think the move would allow more candidates to apply.

Board member Lloyd Jackson was particularly vocal in advocating for the change.

"Hospitals figured out a long time ago the best doctor didn't always make the best administrators," Jackson said.  

A specific section of state code addresses the qualifications of state superintendent. The portion that tripped up board members states a person must have a master's degree in education administration, recognized ability as a school administrator and at least five years of experience in public school work.  

There are people in the state who would make excellent superintendents, having devoted their lives to education, who cannot apply because they do not meet that criteria, Jackson said.

Board member Mike Green also touted the idea of giving the board more control.

For example, code sets a ceiling for the superintendent's salary. He asked whether it would require a code change to pay someone even a dollar more.

Jackson and other board members argued changing the requirements would make the job more appealing to a broader candidate pool, justifying the potential cost of a national search. If the Legislature does not change the code, he questioned whether the board would get the bang for its buck from the national search.  

Jackson served on The College Board committee that sought a new president after former Gov. Gaston Caperton stepped down. He said he learned a great deal about what goes in to a national search.  

Board member Priscilla Haden had questions of her own.

She thought a national search could cost $70,000 to $100,000 and wondered where the board would get that money.

Heinlein said the funds would come from the Office of Legal Services. Green and fellow board member William White said cost should not be the top concern.

Time, however, is a concern. It could take months for the Legislature to act on the request, Jackson said.

After the Nov. 29 meeting, White said the board would probably vote to hire a "short-term" superintendent until one could be hired through the national search. Haden said she thought this might have influenced some candidates to decline nominations.

She said she spoke to three potential candidates - Monongalia County Superintendent Frank Devono, Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring and Wood County's Pat Law - all of whom declined.

She said Devono declined because he couldn't afford to make the change, Duerring did not provide a reason, and Law said "circumstances were not ideal at this time."

She thought at least one of them might apply when the job is posted for the national search and thought applying now could hurt his chances in the long run.  

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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