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Board president discussed superintendent job with candidate before firing Marple

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The president of the West Virginia Board of Education called the superintendent of Randolph County Schools to gauge his interest in becoming the next state superintendent of schools before voting to fire Dr. Jorea Marple from the position.

Dr. James Phares, superintendent of Randolph County Schools, said Friday in a phone interview that Wade Linger, president of the state board of education, called him on Tuesday or Wednesday to see if he would be interested in taking the state's top education job, should it become available.

Thursday the board voted 5-2 to fire Marple from her position as superintendent, her role since March of 2011. Shortly after the vote, two board members announced their intentions to resign in protest of the firing.

Hours after firing Marple, the board held a special meeting to select an acting superintendent. They tapped deputy superintendent Chuck Heinlein for the position, but Linger asked the board to elect Phares as the full-time replacement. After some discussion about whether to hold a national search, the board put off the matter to a later meeting.

In their conversation earlier in the week, Phares said he and Linger talked about the role of a superintendent as well as the findings of the education efficiency audit released in January. He added that every superintendent in the state had an inkling that changes to West Virginia education were coming, but he said he was surprised at Marple's firing.

"I don't know that I could say that there was something in the works," Phares said

In a Friday phone interview, Linger confirmed the conversation he had with Phares. He said he didn't remember the exact date, but said it took place prior to this week's meeting.

Thursday some legislators, union officials and other members of the education community expressed their shock and displeasure with Marple's firing. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said the move by "Manchin-appointed" board members was politically motivated and appalling.

Many of the board members were nominated for their positions by then-governor and current U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Manchin's wife Gayle is also on the board, leading some to speculate the move to fire Marple was a power play.

Phares called the idea "balderdash." Immediately following Thursday's meeting Linger said that notion was ridiculous, and reiterated the idea Friday when asked about how he knew Phares.

 "This is getting to be tedious. You guys are trying to make something that isn't there. I actually resent it," Linger said. "I don't understand what your motivation is, digging for some sort of conspiracy...when I'm just trying to do my job."

Judy Hale, head of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said Thursday the vote came as a surprise and the manner in which it happened was disturbing.

The vote called for Marple to leave her office by the end of the day Thursday. Linger said he's never been in a situation exactly like this before. As the owner of several businesses in Fairmont, he said that's routine for the private sector though.

"It is very common practice that once that decision is made, that you don't have that person hanging around as a lame duck. It's not good for the staff. It's not good for that person," Linger said.

Before becoming the Randolph County superintendent in July 2009, Phares was the superintendent in Marion County. Linger is from and currently lives in Fairmont, the Marion County seat. Phares said when he was superintendent in Marion County, Linger was a member of the Local School Improvement Council for a high school in Fairmont.

Phares said they both knew one another but never really interacted. Linger said he never remembered any dealings with Phares while Linger served on the council.

Linger said he nominated Phares because of his reputation: while superintendent in Marion County, he was named West Virginia Superintendent of the year and was a finalist for a national superintendent of the year award.

The state department of education was almost ready to take over operations in Randolph County before Phares arrived, but the county has made a remarkable turnaround with Phares at the helm, Linger said.

Phares said he was humbled by the nomination and would accept the post if he is selected by the board. He said he's not satisfied with the state's low national educational rankings and thinks there needs to be improved communication between the legislature, board and department of education.

"I have the skill set to come in and be a change agent," he said.

A meeting to discuss the board's response to the audit was already planned for Wednesday. The board will also vote on the employment of a superintendent at that meeting; Phares said he plans to attend.  

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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