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State superintendent denies role in son's hiring as teacher

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By Mackenzie Mays

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Amid a push for more transparency in West Virginia's teacher hiring process, state Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares is denying accusations he played a part in his son's recent hiring as a teacher.

Last year, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform bill -- which also de-emphasized seniority in the hiring process -- gave teachers the ability to weigh in on hiring decisions at their school alongside principals. But if a school's faculty senate and principal agree on the same candidate, they don't have to provide documentation on the hiring process.

That's the case with Phares' son, Tyler, who recently was hired as a teacher by Randolph County Schools -- where Phares served as superintendent before he took the state position one year ago, according to officials.

"The state's teacher hiring practices legislation should not be about the state superintendent, the governor or any other adult in the system. It needs to be about the students and the best teacher for those students. It is unfortunate that the debate over a powerful piece of legislation, which gives teachers and principals an unprecedented voice in hiring the best person for the job, has evolved into allegations about my family," Phares said in a statement Tuesday evening.

"The truth is simple -- I in no way used my influence as state superintendent to get my son a job. He was hired in Randolph County because the faculty senate committee and the principal each independently determined that he was the best candidate for the job."

The House Education Committee passed an amendment to House Bill 4394 Monday evening, which requires school staff involved in the hiring process to more thoroughly document how they reach hiring decisions. That means documentation of the hiring process will be required no matter what -- not just when there's a disagreement over a potential hire.

The state's branch of the American Federation of Teachers has been pushing for the amendment, urging more transparency and looking for documentation to inspect upon complaints from teachers who think they unfairly did not get the job, said AFT-WV President Christine Campbell.

"We're not saying [Tyler] wasn't the most qualified person, but if you didn't give him an interview, then how do we know that?" she said. "We believe that it's all a transparency issue. Why would you not want to have documentation of what you're doing if you're doing it right?"

Campbell said she does not want people to focus too much on the accusation about Phares because she receives similar complaints about unfair hiring practices all over the state.

"I don't even want in that. I want to talk about why this is important, and if this situation encourages people to increase transparency in hiring, then so be it," she said. "The whole point here is transparency and accountability.
"We have had many teachers who have been passed over in counties and called us and said, 'I don't understand why this person got the job over me,'" Campbell said.

Randolph County Schools Superintendent Terry George also denied accusations that his school staff skipped any hiring protocol in Tyler Phares' case, and said since the legislation passed in June, he's filled more than 40 positions using the process and no grievances have been filed.

George said Tyler Phares worked in the county as a teacher once before, but then moved to Virginia.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Tyler Phares graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College with a bachelor's degree in education in 2009.

"According to what I've heard, the integrity of Randolph County has been questioned, but we are consistent in our hiring process. We hire the best educator for each position, and our people are very satisfied and confident that the system is working," George said.

Campbell said she will continue to work for the passage of HB4394 during this legislative session, which ends in early March, and said it's crucial to ensure students are receiving the most-qualified teachers.

Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour and House Education chairwoman, said she was aware of the complaints about Phares, but it has not come up in committee discussions.

Poling said the new bill will help give schools more local control while ensuring transparency.

"Nothing has changed about flexibility. Nothing was changed about the process except the documentation -- it makes it more transparent and, in that case, I think it protects the process and it allows for due process when there's any question about what was done," Poling said.