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Gayle Manchin hopes new state superintendent brings change

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By Mackenzie Mays 
The Charleston Gazette

State School Board President Gayle Manchin is confident that the board’s recent controversial past has not prevented interested candidates from applying to become the state’s next superintendent – in fact, it may have even attracted more.

“I’m sure any candidate has Googled it and knows, but there has been great interest. People realize there’s opportunity to work in a state that truly is trying to transform education and improve student achievement,” said Manchin, wife of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV.)

Ray and Associates Inc. – the firm the state Board of Education hired for $43,000 to conduct a nationwide superintendent search – spoke with nearly 250 people about the position, and 64 representing 43 states submitted serious applications.

That turnout is a pleasant surprise, Manchin said, while the state school board is in the midst of a legal battle with former superintendent Jorea Marple – who was abruptly fired by the board in November 2012.

The new superintendent will officially replace Marple, who alleges that the board illegally fired her over political reasons and is pushing for full-airing of the issues in court. Current superintendent Jim Phares, who plans to retire by the end of the month, signed on with the understanding that he would only hold the spot while the board conducted a national search to replace Marple.

“I was very pleasantly surprised to see that, yes, there were a number of individuals out there that looked at West Virginia and said this is a state that is on the move trying to make those changes that are necessary and have quit saying ‘we’re going to continue to do things the way we’ve always done them and hope we get different results,’”she said.

“There are people that saw that and it registered well with them,” Manchin said. “I was apprehensive. The fact that we’re so low in student achievement and have always been 49th or 50th and always said, ‘thank god for Mississippi’ – that gave me concern too. But there are people out there that are excited and want to be a change agent.

“This state has nowhere to go but up, and there’s someone that believes they’re the person that can make a difference in that process,” she said.

Manchin said a continued public focus on the Marple controversy is disheartening, but that the board has had a solid year with no distractions under the leadership of Phares.

“We haven’t done anything dealing with a lawsuit because we haven’t chosen to hear it, so we have gone on with our work as a state board,” she said. “In a year and a half, I would hope there would be more news than this. We feel like good things are happening at the state board and there are good things to read and I would hate for a candidate applying for this job to think that’s the only thing that’s happening.”

Manchin said while the board’s move to fire Marple was controversial, it was an attempt to turn around the historically low-achieving school system, and it has since perpetuated more change and fueled the most thorough superintendent search in the state in years.

“We feel that we were deliberate and diligent [with the search process.] We didn’t rush. We’re not going to settle,” she said. “If we narrow this down and narrow the candidates and don’t believe we found the person that can move West Virginia forward, we will continue. We’re not going to settle. I don’t think West Virginia should ever have to settle for whatever we can get. I think we have a great opportunity here.

“I believe we have good things to offer. I don’t ever sell us short. I just think that we have not set the bar for our aspirations where they should’ve been in the past, and I believe now we are. So we’re excited and certainly are keeping our fingers crossed.”

The state Board of Education will meet in regular session on Wednesday at the state Capitol.