Deposed West Virginia Schools Chief Fights Back

 
Jorea Marple (AP Photo/The Charleston Gazette, Chris Dorst)

When West Virginia’s former State School Superintendent told the state last week that she planned to sue over her surprise November dismissal, her notice was addressed to a familiar figure: her husband, the outgoing attorney general.

Jorea Marple, the departing state schools chief, was fired by the state’s board of education just over a week after her husband, Darrell McGraw, was denied a sixth term as attorney general by challenger Patrick Morrisey.

Jenny Phillips, who served on the board, says she doesn’t think the two are related. “I think it’s unfortunate that it happened like that,” she says. But others aren’t so sure. And Phillips, along with another board member, formally resigned in late December because of Marple’s dismissal.

“I have no idea why she was let go,” Phillips says.

One thing we do know is that school board politics in West Virginia is a family affair. Besides the Marple-McGraw connection, one of the other board members is the wife of Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s U.S. senator.

Marple’s firing November 15 seemed to come from out of the blue — it wasn’t even listed on an agenda for the board’s meeting that day — leading to questions about whether it complied with the state’s open records law.

West Virginia isn’t the only state where questions have arisen recently about the procedures of a state school board. Weeks later in Utah, the state’s board of education elected its membership via secret ballot, prompting another series of complaints about key decisions being made without sufficient transparency.

In December, the University of Virginia was put on warning by its accreditor in response to an attempt last summer by its board to remove the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan. Public outcry followed the surprise decision, which was taken by means of private phone calls. Sullivan was reinstated, and now the status of the board member who orchestrated the removal is a looming political issue in Virginia’s legislature.

Marple also isn’t the first state education chief to lose a job this year. In Indiana, where the top education official is elected, Tony Bennett suffered a surprising defeat in November. Weeks later, he was hired to be commissioner of education in Florida, replacing Gerard Robinson, who resigned from the post in August amid several controversies involving state testing. Ohio’s state superintendent of public instruction, Stan Heffner, also resigned in August in response to ethics concerns about his ties to the testing company Educational Testing Services.

 “Change in Direction” 

Two weeks after its first decision to dismiss Marple, the West Virginia board voted to fire her again publicly in response to the criticisms about procedure. Wayne Linger, the board’s president, read a statement after the second dismissal laying out facts about West Virginia’s academic achievement, including its below-average performance on national standardized tests, and concerns about the department’s willingness to make improvements under Marple’s leadership.

“I believed we needed a change in direction,” Linger said, “and in order to do that, we needed a change in leadership.” The firing came as the board and state legislators planned to take action on recommendations contained in a major audit of West Virginia’s education system released in January of last year.

What makes Marple’s case unique is that she has chosen to sue the state over her dismissal. Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, wasn’t aware of any similar case in recent years.

In their letter to the state, Marple’s lawyers argue that her firing presents “permanent injury” to her ability to find future work.

Gary Ray, president of the education executive search firm Ray and Associates, says that being fired doesn’t necessarily hinder a superintendent’s future chances of being hired elsewhere, since it’s most often the result of political or philosophical differences. “Usually the prospective employer understands those circumstances,” he says.

The “Will and Pleasure” 

The letter adds that Marple will request she be immediately reinstated, compensated for her damages and cleared of any wrongdoing or given a full hearing at which the board would be required to present “competent, admissible evidence” to support her firing. It argues that Marple’s firing represented an “illegal termination.”

In fact, though, the superintendent in West Virginia “serves at the will and pleasure” of the board, which is normally interpreted to mean that dismissal doesn’t require justification. This isn’t unusual, says Lee Adler, at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The higher you go up the employment chain, the less legal protection you have,” he says, “unless it’s explicit.”

Marple’s lawyers respond that similar cases in the past have been decided in favor of “will and pleasure” employees.

The board said in a statement that it would be “inappropriate” to comment about the complaints before a lawsuit is filed. But Thomas Barber, one of Marple’s attorneys, says he hopes the notice triggers discussion with the board that would render the lawsuit moot. “If they give us a satisfactory response back,” he says, “that’s the whole purpose of this letter.”

 
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