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Phares named new state schools superintendent, for now

HAMLIN, W.Va. -- Randolph County Superintendent Jim Phares will take over as West Virginia's superintendent of schools while the state Board of Education conducts a national search for a more long-term candidate.

Phares, who worked as a teacher in Virginia for 25 years before acting as superintendent in Pocahontas, Marion and Randolph counties, was chosen over Kathy D'Antoni, an assistant state superintendent, for the position.

State board members met Wednesday at Lincoln County High School.

He will serve "however long it takes" for the board to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent to replace Jorea Marple, who was abruptly terminated last month, board President Wade Linger said.

"I love this state and I believe in every student in this state. That's why I stand before you tonight," Phares told the board at the meeting in Hamlin Wednesday. "This process over the last month has caused tremendous acrimony. I am ready to build some bridges and heal some scars.

"I believe my views on education are in sync not only with the state board but also with local boards," Phares said. "Everybody needs to know that our kids can do better and will do better. I think the board and the Legislature and the local county boards want us to do this efficiently. They know the days of just throwing money at stuff are past."

Linger initially recommended Phares for the position in an emergency meeting that was called on Nov. 15, the same day Marple was fired.

Since then, deputy state Superintendent Chuck Heinlein has been holding the spot. At Wednesday's meeting, Heinlein declined a nomination to continue in that role.

About seven hours into Wednesday's meeting, the board entered into private session to discuss the questions to ask the two candidates and gave them the option for a public or closed-door interview.  

Phares, who chose to have his interview in public, cited "the three R's" as his immediate goals for West Virginia students: Relevancy, relationships and rigor.

He said his top priorities are giving county school systems more control, tackling the recommendations of the governor's education efficiency audit and working more closely with lawmakers to change restrictions of the board.

Current state code requires that the state superintendent of schools have a master's degree in educational administration and experience as a school administrator, in addition to at least five years' experience in public schools.

Several members of the board said those requirements narrow the pool for potential candidates, and hope that legislators will help change that.

"A national search all starts with whether the Legislature is going to accommodate us. You can only imagine the names of the people who have been involved in education and don't qualify because of the statute. It's inappropriate and wrong for the board to be limited that way," said board member Lloyd Jackson. "If the Legislature refuses to make those changes, then we're limited and it's a different search than if they allow us to move forward in a broader-based way."

Jackson also suggested that the board hire an outside firm to help conduct the search for a new superintendent, but some board members worried about the added cost.

Money would have to come out of the Department of Education budget to hire an outside firm, which could cost between $70,000 and $100,000, said board member Priscilla Haden.

"I am definitely for a national search, but I'm concerned about the money. We're robbing Peter to pay Paul, in a sense," Haden said.

If the Legislature does not choose to amend current state code, it could have an impact on how the search is conducted, board members said.

"It blows my mind that all of those things are in code. It's time to get these things right. If we're going to stop being the status-quo state, we have to apply common sense and that means flexibility," said Michael Green. "We've got to stand up and say we need the flexibility to find the best person possible."

"Are you sure you want to invest tens of thousands in such a narrow search?" Jackson asked the board. "It comes down to whether or not people want to see the board make some changes or stay in the same boat we're in."

Haden said she had asked three people if they would be interested in serving the "temporary" role -- Kanawha County Superintendent Ron Duerring, Monongalia County Superintendent Frank Devono and Wood County Superintendent Patrick Law.

All three declined, she said -- some pointing to the controversial timing. The board has been under fire since Marple's termination, and a pending Supreme Court petition alleges that the board fired her unlawfully.

Gayle Manchin said at Wednesday's meeting that she was under the assumption that whoever was taking the temporary role would not be taking the position on permanently. Linger reassured that the "fill-in" superintendent can still qualify for the permanent position.

Phares said while he will not completely rule out the possibility of becoming a more permanent superintendent, it is not an immediate goal of his. He will be sworn in Jan. 2.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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