By Lawrence Messina
James Phares will serve as West Virginia schools superintendent, for at least the short-term, after the state Board of Education chose the Randolph County school chief Wednesday.
The board unanimously voted to hire Phares after interviewing both him and Kathy D’Antoni, an assistant state superintendent, during a daylong meeting held at Lincoln County High School.
The length of Phares’ tenure, which would start Jan. 2, is unclear. The board also agreed Wednesday to conduct a national search for a long-term superintendent. That plan calls on the Legislature to revisit the job’s qualifications and duties, amid questions over whether the relevant law is too restrictive or fails to reflect current needs.
Board members nominated and then interviewed both candidates ahead of the vote, with D’Antoni choosing to be quizzed behind closed doors. Phares fielded 10 questions before the board and its audience on such topics as spending, leadership and the much-discussed audit of West Virginia’s education system.
Phares noted that finances improved while he was superintendent of Randolph, and before that for Pocahontas and Marion counties. He recounted the successful passage of a property tax excess levy to raise school funding as an example of successfully working with parents and the community. He expressed support for the changes called for by the board in the wake of the education audit.
“I’m willing to become part of the momentum that’s building here,” Phares told reporters after the meeting. He added, “I’m willing to serve and work as hard as I can to implement the audit response and put it into action.”
The board has said that a desire to change direction led to its vote last month to fire Jorea Marple as superintendent, less than two years into her tenure.
Phares pledged to work with the Department of Education, given the fallout surrounding Marple’s ouster and the partial blame assigned to bureaucracy by the audit for West Virginia’s poor student performance. Asked whether he has second-guessed any of his decisions, Phares spoke of the October stabbing death of a Randolph County student by another juvenile shortly before the start of a high school football game. Phares supported allowing the game to be played but has since mulled over that call, he told the board.
Phares will take over from Charles Heinlein, a deputy superintendent who was asked to fill in after Marple’s firing.
Board President Wade Linger endorsed Phares almost immediately after that surprise Nov. 15 vote. The board met again last month to affirm the dismissal, while fielding protests from Marple supporters, amid concerns that the initial meeting violated the state law requiring open proceedings. A pending Supreme Court petition filed by two Boone County parents alleges the board failed to comply with the open meetings law. James and Michelle Hicks say Marple had refused to support no-bid contracts involving conflicts of interest. They are asking the justices to void Marple’s firing and block any new hire.
Linger on Tuesday called for an independent review of all board and Department of Education contracts in light of that accusation. Linger wants a lawyer with no ties to the department or state government to conduct the review. The board’s monthly meeting agenda included discussion of the case, and of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by The Associated Press and other media organizations in the wake of Marple’s firing.
The board on Wednesday also welcomed just-retired Delegate Tom Campbell as its newest member. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed the Greenbrier County accountant on Monday for a full nine-year term. The 51-year-old Democrat served eight terms in the House of Delegates and chaired its Education Committee in 2005 and 2006. Campbell chose not to run for re-election this year.