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Opinion: Selecting the right state superintendent critical for W.Va.

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The Times West Virginian (editorial)

We’ve stressed many times over the years that strong education is critical to the economic health of West Virginia.

That applies to pre-kindergarten through high school, as well as higher education.

That’s why an upcoming hire of a new state superintendent of schools is vitally important.

West Virginia Superintendent James B. Phares, a former superintendent in Marion County, announced his retirement this month after only 15 months on the job. He will step down at the end of the fiscal year June 30.

His announcement came the same day that an Iowa firm was hired to conduct a national search for Phares’ replacement.

Phares officially took office in January 2013. While he didn’t carry the interim tag, the West Virginia Board of Education had agreed to search for a long-term superintendent. Phares had said he supported that decision.

“Dr. Phares was not a placeholder,” state board President Gayle Manchin said. “He was a very actively engaged superintendent, which is what we wanted him to be.”

It’s a job with high responsibilities. The superintendent oversees a Department of Education with a $2.6 billion annual budget that directs school systems in the state’s 55 counties.

The previous superintendent, Jorea Marple, was fired in November 2012.

Marple served a year and nine months when the board cited lagging student performance and a desire to “head in a new direction with new leadership.”

The dismissal led to ongoing legal action on behalf of Marple and the resignation of board members Jenny Phillips and Priscilla Haden, who voted against Marple’s firing.

Some have suggested a West Virginian would be the best choice as the next superintendent

“They would know our circumstances, our culture and our education system,” Doddridge County Schools Superintendent Rick Coffman said last week.

Mark Manchin, who will take over as Harrison County superintendent on July 1 after serving as the state School Building Authority’s executive director, said that “we have outstanding leaders from all over the state. I think your first look should be here. If they come back and say they haven’t been able to find anyone here, I certainly would have no problem with them talking to somebody from outside.”

We’re confident the board will carefully look at the full field of applicants after the May 26 deadline arrives.

Challenges are certainly there for the person who will be the third state superintendent in less than four years.

The board embraced the bulk of a sweeping review that found the West Virginia education system heavy with state-level staffers and policies made inflexible by laws, but light on student achievement, shortly before Phares took over.

“I have often told people this is the hardest job I have ever loved,” Phares wrote at the time of his retirement announcement.

The Legislature in 2013 approved a wide-ranging education reform package that called for more local control for county school boards, increased third-grade reading proficiency and other changes.

There’s no time for a new superintendent to coast.

“Personally, I believe it needs to be someone as experienced in West Virginia, knows our schools, and has the desire to move education forward,” Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said after Phares’ announcement.

Choosing the right candidate is critical, whether it is a West Virginian by birth or by choice.