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Political motivations alleged in Marple firing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State schools Superintendent Jorea Marple and her husband, Attorney General Darrell McGraw, started last week as one of the most powerful couples in West Virginia politics.

By Thursday evening, both had been shown the door. Now, some are blaming the state's other Democratic Party power couple -- the Manchins -- in a royal entanglement worthy of Shakespeare.

First McGraw lost the Nov. 6 election. Then, in a decision that shocked the education community, the state Board of Education voted Thursday morning to fire Marple, effective immediately.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin's wife, Gayle Manchin, is a member of the board. She and four others voted to dump Marple and gave little explanation for their decision. Joe Manchin appointed all of them to the board when he was governor.

"Since these are Manchin appointees, I assume Gayle Manchin is the major leader of the board," former board member and Marple supporter Lowell Johnson said Thursday.

The West Virginia Education Association, another of Marple's allies, said it was "appalled" by Marple's firing and blamed Manchin-appointed members for her ouster.

For her part, Marple blamed unspecific political forces.

"Why? I don't know why," Marple said in an interview shortly after the board voted to fire her. "I can only assume it's political. I was given no cause, no explanation other than, the statement was they did not have faith in my leadership, so, that's it."

State Board of Education President Wade Linger, who Manchin appointed to the board in 2008, said there was no Manchin faction on the board.

"That's bulls - - t," Linger said in an interview in the board of education's meeting room. "Nobody who knows me would say such a thing."

Marple said it's been a long 10 days for the family since McGraw lost last week to Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey. She called her husband shortly after she was fired.

"Well I think he was shocked," she said. "In case you haven't noticed, this has been an interesting 10 days or however long it's been. Maybe it's been an eternity."

Just before suppertime Thursday, boxes crowded the steps to the couple's house across the street from the Capitol -- a house with a perfect view of their lost seats of power. McGraw doesn't need to leave office until mid-January.

The Manchins, for their part, denied they made any play. Gayle Manchin declined to comment. The senator's office said the senator played no role in the recent decision.

"The State Board of Education is the governing body of our state's public education system and its members have the authority and responsibility to make decisions about personnel matters," Manchin's office said in a statement.

Others also cast doubt on the Manchin explanation.

Judy Hale, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said she didn't want to "second guess" the WVEA or Johnson's decision to blame the Manchins, but she had a different assessment of Marple's ouster.

"I talked to several of those board members, some of them weren't there today, they are pretty independent thinkers and I'm not sure they would be led by anyone other than their own conscious or their own views," Hale said.

She pointed to clashes -- some of them that have been made public -- over how to handle an audit of the state's education system.

"I know that there was some opposing views on how you deal with the efficiency audit -- that may have participated it, or at least been a part of it," Hale said.

Board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden voted against firing Marple, and said they planned to resign in protest.

After the meeting, Phillips said she's not sure about the idea of a Manchin faction on the board, but she definitely thinks there is a political divide.

"And I'm not sure it's political as far as Republican or Democrat," she said. "You know for some reason, some of the board members felt that they needed more power I guess."  

Linger apparently walked into work today ready to throw Marple from power.

He also came in with plans to replace her with James Phares, the current superintendent in Randolph County and a former superintendent in Marion County, which is Linger's and the Manchins' native county. Linger said it was "just silly" for people to connect those dots. The board will vote on Phares at a meeting next week.

Linger could not point to a specific reason he fired Marple but he did blame the school system's chronic underperformance. Marple has been superintendent since March 2011.

"This is about the children in West Virginia, it's not about the adults," Linger said.

Facing questions about who was leading the state Department of Education if there was no superintendent, the board held an emergency meeting Thursday afternoon to pick an interim superintendent.

During that meeting, the board made deputy state superintendent Chuck Heinlein the acting superintendent. But Linger also suggested hiring Phares as the next permanent superintendent at a meeting next week -- without first doing a national search for a new leader.

"So, you're picking superintendent?" Haden asked Linger.

Linger said the board would vote on Phares and suggested anyone who was not following his lead was thwarting a process.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has been mostly silent on the whole situation, and his sole appointee to the board -- former state Sen. Lloyd Jackson II -- was out of town and did not vote Thursday morning.

The Board of Education has nine voting members who serve staggered nine-year terms. Manchin initially appointed six of the current members to the board. Tomblin appointed Jackson and former Gov. Bob Wise first appointed Haden.

Linger noted that Phillips, who supported Marple, was also a Manchin appointee when he argued Thursday's actions were not politically motivated.



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