Candlelight vigil supports Marple
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Supporters of deposed state schools Superintendent Jorea Marple rallied Tuesday night in Charleston to demand an explanation for her firing and to call on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to remove five members from the state Board of Education, including former first lady Gayle Manchin.
The West Virginia Education Association hosted a candlelight vigil in front of its Quarrier Street headquarters. About 150 people attended, according to estimates.
Marple supporters carried candles and rallied following the state board's abrupt decision to fire the superintendent last week.
Earlier in the day, Tomblin's administration vowed not to let the situation distract the governor from his desire to reform the state's underperforming school system.
"This does not distract and absolutely cannot distract from our focus on the education audit," Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said Tuesday afternoon.
The Governor's Office paid $750,000 for an audit of the education system. The audit, which was first proposed by former Gov. Joe Manchin, was completed nearly a year ago, but little action has been taken on it so far.
But supporters of Marple are trying to spill the issue into Tomblin's lap.
"Remove the gang of five," the crowd in front of the WVEA headquarters chanted twice Tuesday night after WVEA President Dale Lee spoke the phrase.
The WVEA accuses a five-member faction on the Board of Education of forcing Marple's ouster. According to the theory, the faction includes members with ties to U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and his wife, Gayle, a board member.
During this year's Senate race, Manchin's Republican challenger, John Raese, accused Manchin of being part of an anti-coal "gang of four."
Marple is married to Attorney General Darrell McGraw, who lost the Nov. 6 election just a little more than a week before his wife was forced from her job.
Gayle Manchin and others deny Marple's ouster was politically motivated.
But protestors at the WVEA vigil didn't stop at blaming Manchin: they want Tomblin to get rid of the five board members who voted to can Marple.
Governors appoint the board's nine voting members to staggered nine-year terms. Tomblin could remove members from the board for "official misconduct, incompetence, neglect of duty or gross immorality," according to state code.
The board members have been criticized for voting to remove Marple without notifying the public they intended to take such action.
"Why was it necessary to violate the West Virginia open meetings law in order to dismiss her?" Lee said at the vigil.
On Tuesday, education board President Wade Linger appeared to give ground to that accusation: the board will meet next week to re-fire Marple to make sure the action complied with the law.
Tomblin has not said what Marple's dismissal means for his education agenda or if he supported her ouster. But he issued a statement last week praising her performance, an indication he may not have been driving the board's actions.
Lloyd Jackson, a former state senator and candidate for governor, is the only board member Tomblin has appointed to the board. He has been on vacation and unavailable for comment.
Asked Tuesday if a Manchin faction was indeed controlling the state's education department or its school board, Goodwin said, "The people that serve on the board are extremely serious about their mission and their job, and the governor has confidence in those who truly have committed themselves to improving education for the 250,000 plus kids that we have. He knows that the members that serve on that board think about those 250,000 students when they make decisions."
While the WVEA has been fanning the anti-Manchin flames, the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers has taken a different approach.
AFT-WV President Judy Hale said she has seen no evidence of a Manchin plot. She also thinks each board member is an independent thinker.
Hale said a tribute to Marple made sense. But Hale could not attend WVEA's vigil because she was appearing at a meeting Tuesday night. The Public Employees Insurance Agency's board was going to discuss insurance rates for workers, including teachers.
"It's the same time as the PEIA finance board hearing, so it's rather ill timed," Hale said of the WVEA's vigil.