Phares, state's 28th schools chief, takes oath of office
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Jim Phares was all smiles Wednesday morning when he officially took the reigns as state superintendent of schools.
"It's a good day for West Virginia, and there are better days ahead," Phares said during an oath of office ceremony. "We've got some difficult work to do, but I'm going to roll up my sleeves and do what I've always done."
Phares is the 28th state superintendent and takes the role after serving as superintendent for Randolph County Schools since 2009. The state Board of Education voted to hire Phares in December. He will earn $165,000 in the position.
He replaces Jorea Marple, who was fired in November by the board. Her firing was not listed on the agenda for the meeting, and it came as a surprise to Marple.
Calls for transparency and allegations of illegal actions arose from the education community almost immediately following the firing.
Hours after Marple was fired, board President Wade Linger nominated Phares to become the next superintendent. The board eventually decided to conduct a national search but hired Phares in December because it felt a search could take a considerable amount of time.
The board also called an additional meeting in November, where it again decided to fire Marple. The meeting came days after a lawsuit filed with the state Supreme Court alleged the board knowingly violated the Open Meetings Act in its initial firing of Marple.
Late Wednesday department spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro confirmed Marple had sent a letter to the department informing it of her intention to file a lawsuit. Victor Flanagan, the attorney representing the board in the Supreme Court case, said Wednesday he would also represent the board in any lawsuit brought by Marple.
Phares said Wednesday morning the circumstances surrounding his hiring don't add any additional pressure to perform as state superintendent.
"So the pressure is: I cannot fail. If I do fail, then I've let a whole bunch of people down, including yourself, the Board of Education and other folks," Phares said.
Several times after Marple was fired board members noted she was a will-and-pleasure employee: the board could vote to terminate her contract at any time. That's the same kind of contract Phares worked under during his time as superintendent in Randolph, Marion and Pocahontas counties.
"I've always had a contract that said at any board meeting the board could come in and upon two weeks' notice appoint someone else. OK. That's pressure to perform. I've been kind of desensitized to it," Phares said.
Officials with professional organizations were some of the most outspoken critics of the Marple firing. Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, blasted the board moments after the firing and called the move politically motivated. Judy Hale, outgoing president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, questioned the transparency of the board's actions.
Hale attended Wednesday's ceremony along with Christine Campbell, who will replace Hale as local AFT president after the end of the upcoming legislative session.
Campbell was a teacher at an elementary school in Pocahontas County during Phares' tenure there as superintendent. Although she was not politically active and didn't interact with him extensively at the time, she said he was seen as very approachable and knowledgeable. She's optimistic that previous work history will come in handy during future dealings with Phares.
At the same time she said teachers across the state were very upset when Marple was fired. The actions of the board following the first firing, including the hiring of Phares, has worked to alleviate some of those concerns.
"I think it has calmed the teachers down a little in a way that they're saying 'OK, as long we've got a person in place and somebody who knows what they're doing and is willing to listen to us,' " Campbell said Wednesday morning. "They're feeling a lot more comfortable and confident . . ."
Phares' oath of office was administered by new state Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin. After the oath, Phares gave a short speech and took questions from the media.
During his speech, he said many tough decisions lay ahead for the board and the department. He pledged to work with the public in the process of enacting any changes or reforms.
"We hope to rebuild trust, we hope to rebuild communications, and above all else we hope to be open and transparent with everything that we do," Phares said.
He's already met with employees in several divisions at the department to talk about their positions and to get to know them, he said. A massive education efficiency audit released one year ago states the department employs too many people. Although Phares acknowledged that portion of the audit, he said no immediate position changes should be expected.
"We've frozen some positions, and we're going to repurpose. And after we present that repurposing to the board, and they approve it, then in April that's when we'll start taking some action," Phares said. "But immediately, heads aren't going to roll."
The department will immediately begin to work on its priorities ahead of the legislative session, Phares said. He promised to complete a 30-day chart of those plans before the end of the day Wednesday, and the board will discuss those priorities during a meeting set for Wednesday.
Phares said he will look at standardized test scores and other measures of performance right away and plans to meet with county school officials, teachers union representatives and legislators soon.
About 30 people attended the Wednesday morning ceremony, including members of the board and Phares supporters. News of Marple's intent to file a lawsuit did not emerge until Wednesday evening.
Marple did not return calls for comment.