Monday, November 19, 2012

WEST VIRGINIA'S SCHOOL OF FARCE (Pub Date TBD)

“Farce is tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.” John Mortimer

It’s tempting to treat the recent firing of West Virginia superintendent of schools, Dr. Jorea Marple, as farce because that’s the form the characters and events seem to demand.

First, there is Board of Education president, Wade Linger, whose inept ouster of Marple violated nearly every principle of sound management.

You know you’ve failed as a leader when you end up looking worse than the person you fired. That’s the spot in which Linger put himself and the Board because, whether Dr. Marple deserved to be fired or not, Linger provided neither warning nor reasons before taking action and his embarrassing inability or unwillingness to do so since makes the episode reek of backroom dealing and cronyism.

In ramrodding through of Marple’s dismissal, Linger blatantly ignored the state’s open meeting law as well as assorted personnel due process requirements and even failed to notify at least two other Board members of his intention to raise the issue. Then Linger burnished his reputation for arrogance by reminding those who dared question his actions that the superintendent serves at the pleasure of the Board. Otherwise, he offered only a few content-free platitudes about the need for a "new direction" before asserting that the board’s priorities are to “build mutual trust”, “commit to change and transparency”, and “improve communication”.

I’d give my right arm to know how the AP reporter who recorded those comments managed to keep a straight face.

Linger and his allies on the Board have succeeded only in plunging the state into crisis and opening the way for assorted lawsuits. They’ve also reminded us why our ineffectual Governor Earl Ray Tomblin always uses his middle name. Otherwise people might assume his middle initial stands for “ridiculous”, which is how he appears after allowing days to go by without comment except for a prepared statement in which he feebly thanked Dr. Marple for her service, but said nothing about her firing.

By comparison, Virginia’s governor, Bob McDonnell, was faced with a similar crisis earlier this year after the University of Virginia Board of Governors attempted to carry out a similar hit job on the president of that university. Faced with an uproar not unlike the one building in West Virginia, McDonnell threatened to fire the entire Board unless they resolved the issue while demanding, “Regardless of your decision, I expect you to make a clear, detailed and unified statement on the future leadership of the university.”

“A clear, detailed and unified statement” is precisely what West Virginia’s Board of Education has not given citizens of the state and, one suspects, cannot.

But Linger’s ineptitude; Tomblin’s ineffectuality; the tears we are told that Dr. Marple shed over her firing; the rumored political intrigues of former governor, Joe Manchin, who appointed the board members who voted for Marple’s dismissal, and those of his wife, Gayle, who sits on the Board are just “Happenings in Hooterville”, the ongoing soap opera that is our state capital. What we need to focus on are the kids and deciding what we need to do to improve upon West Virginia’s standing as the least educated state in the nation.

At present there is no public discussion of these issues by the governor or members of the Board of Education. In fact, as he tries to ram through the appointment as state superintendent of Randolph County schools superintendent, James Phares, Board President Linger is working assiduously to ensure there is no discussion or debate lest it derail the appointment of a cipher whose views on educational policy are generally unknown.

Meanwhile, when asked about educational policy, the governor and others in state government point to the now almost legendary Educational Audit. But that document, whatever its merits, is about making schools more cost effective and not much about how to improve education. While saying a great deal about administration and expense management, the audit contains not a word about curriculum, teaching methods, early childhood preparedness – all issues that West Virginia desperately needs to address.

Remarkably, as of this writing the governor and the Board of Education still have it within their power to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. They can respond to the current fiasco by temporarily reinstating Dr. Marple, if she is willing, and by conducting a public review of her performance in which any criticisms or concerns that Board members have, as well as Dr. Marple’s replies, are put on the table to be considered by all West Virginians. At the same time, other candidates for the job should be invited to submit credentials as well as their visions for education in West Virginia. These should also be shared publically. Such a process would allow West Virginia to initiate a much-needed public discussion and even salvage a shred of dignity.

Ironically, last year, when the Board conducted its most recent superintendent search from which Dr. Marple emerged as the unanimous selection, Board president Linger expressed dismay that there weren’t more applicants from around the nation and he openly wondered why. He needn’t have looked any farther than the mirror for an answer. After witnessing Linger’s banana republic-like leadership of the Board, few qualified candidates are likely to apply for the opportunity to labor under the whimsical ways of West Virginia politics. But, what’s done is done and we must muddle through as best we can.

Sean O’Leary can be reached at seanoleary@citlink.net or at his blog the-state-of-my-state.com.




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