CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Board of Education voted Thursday to fire Superintendent Jorea Marple, a shocking and unexpected decision that upended the education community.
Marple was told Thursday morning to be out of her office by the end of the day.
No reason was given. Marple had served as superintendent of schools since March 2011. The board voted 5-2 to terminate her contract.
Hours later, board members convened an emergency meeting amid questions about who was leading the state Department of Education.
The board appointed deputy superintendent Chuck Heinlein as acting superintendent.
Board President Wade Linger also suggested hiring Dr. James Phares as the full-time superintendent. The board will vote on that decision next week. Phares is the current superintendent of schools in Randolph County.
Board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden voted against the measure, and then announced they would resign from the board in protest.
After the vote Thursday morning, Marple said she understood she serves at the will and pleasure of the board, but that the state has shown growth and progress under her leadership.
At the end of a prepared statement, she asked the board to provide cause for her firing.
"Thank you, Ms. Marple," Board President Wade Linger said.
"It's Dr. Marple," she responded, before walking out of the room.
Sitting in her office, Marple was visibly shaken. She said she had no idea she was going to be fired.
"Life goes on," Marple said minutes after the vote.
With a huge sigh and fighting back tears, she continued, "I believe in the work that we were doing and I believe we were making great progress and I've been given no reason, so I guess you can only assert that there's a political reason."
Marple thought she might have been too outspoken about changing the school aid formula, the method used by the state to determine how much money goes to public education. She couldn't point to any direct reason for her firing, and said board members Gayle Manchin and Robert Dunlevy -- both of whom voted to fire her -- recently told her she was doing a good job.
There was no open discussion about the decision during the meeting, and it was not on the meeting agenda. The board went into a closed session for more than an hour to discuss personnel matters, but returned and said no action would be taken.
Shortly thereafter, Linger called for a brief break. In later interviews, Linger said he called the break to let Marple know he thought the board would vote to fire her. He said he offered to let her resign first.
Immediately following the break, Linger and a secretary passed out green sheets of paper to all the board members.
The paper listed the termination of Marple effective at close of business Thursday.
Some questioned whether the board's action was legal.
Theresa Kirk, executive director of the state Ethics Commission, said public boards generally cannot add new issues to their agenda in the middle of meetings.
"You can't add an item to your agenda during the course of a meeting unless it constitutes an emergency situation," Kirk said.
Emergencies include harm to public welfare, like during a natural disaster, or to the state's coffers.
Linger said Marple is dedicated to education and the children of the state, but the time for change is now.
"The reason the board needed to take this action today is that we're coming up on a time when we need real change in education in this state, some new reforms, and now is just the right time to bring in new leadership with new attitudes and forward thinking views on education," Linger said.
Linger mentioned an audit of the state school system and the Department of Education that "opened up a lot of questions" and, combined with a change in the board "environment," played a role in the decision.
After the meeting, Phillips said she thought Marple was doing a fantastic job and was surprised at the vote. There had been no formal discussions about firing Marple before today, she said. Linger and other board members echoed those statements.
The immediacy of the board to select a new superintendent made Phillips skeptical. In a tweet Phillips sent Thursday afternoon, she said she thought the arrangement with Phares seems like it has been in the works for weeks.
Linger repeatedly denied any decisions were made before Thursday.
Union officials were some of the most vocal critics of the decision.
Dale Lee, head of the West Virginia Education Association, said he was appalled at the move and questioned whether there were political motives.
Judy Hale, head of the West Virginia branch of the American Teachers Federation, said she had heard "mumblings" about removing Marple, but she said the vote was a rash and "disturbing" decision.
"But to have this happen was a total surprise. Quite frankly, the manner in which it happened is very disturbing to me," she said.
Hale called the exit of Haden and Phillips a huge loss, a sentiment Marple echoed. Phillips has served on the board since 2005, and Haden became a member in 2003. Both will remain on the board until the end of the year.
Linger said he was surprised by the resignations. It creates "a situation for a further renewal of the board at a quicker pace," he said.
The firing was not politically motivated, Linger said. He said he resented the idea, and it was ridiculous for anyone to assert such a claim.
"I think ultimately the role and position of state superintendent of schools is a will-and-pleasure position under the state board of education," Linger said.
"As long as the person in that role has the confidence of the overall state board they continue in that role and at whatever point the state board feels that new leadership is needed, that's when it's incumbent upon the board to make this kind of move," he continued.
The board already planned to meet Wednesday to discuss its response to the audit. It will vote on whether to hire Phares during that meeting, Linger said.
Former state school board member Lowell Johnson said Marple had received a positive evaluation earlier this year from the board. Johnson, whose term on the board ended Nov. 4, wondered why board members changed their minds since that evaluation and since she was hired in early 2011.
"In a year and a few months they are apparently changing their mind and I think this is an opportunity for the Manchin appointees to select the people who they want to be state superintendent -- and I don't know that it has anything to do with the children. In fact, it couldn't have anything to do with the children. You can be sure if I was on the board I would not have voted."
House Education Committee Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour, said she learned about the board's action from news reports. Poling said she had no idea Marple would be ousted today.
She said more consideration should have been given to the decision.
Poling said she had the same questions as Marple: "If she's asking 'Why?' that probably would be my question, too."
Poling also worried about Haden and Phillips' sudden resignation.