Phares looks forward to retirement

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By John Raby 
The Associated Press

CHARLESTON — James Phares looked forward to the challenge and opportunity to help make a difference in a state education system under fire when he was hired in late 2012 as West Virginia’s schools superintendent.

After 18 months, Phares will be stepping down on June 30 — which he said was set long ago as the day at age 61 that he’d walk with his wife into retirement.

“I told them what my parameters were,” Phares said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. “I have a timeline. They knew what my end-game was.”

Phares was the schools superintendent in Randolph County when he was approached by then-state school board President Wade Linger about replacing the fired Jorea Marple.

“I felt compelled to do it,” Phares said. “My approach was, be straightforward and do what I normally do, which is roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

His main task: to help the board implement a host of changes. That included many changes suggested in a sweeping audit that criticized the education system for low student performances, given the billions of dollars it devotes annually to public schools. It also said educators are being weighed down by state-level staffers and policies made inflexible by laws.

Overall, Phares believes the work of education leaders since he came on board has helped “raise the bar and raise the standards” in the state’s public schools system, although he said “you just can’t claim victory and walk away. There’s still a lot of work left to be done.”

In response to the audit, a bill signed last year by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin required the Department of Education to trim personnel spending by 5 percent in fiscal 2014 and 2015 and shift the money to other school needs.

Phares said he’s most proud of advances the state has made with expanding career and technical education opportunities for students, including implementing simulated workplaces in schools statewide.

He also pointed to initiatives to help children in low-income families read at grade level by the end of third grade; a new policy letting schools use factors besides seniority to help steer teacher hiring and transfers, and limiting non-instruction time while allowing counties to adjust for snow days to meet the state-required 180 days. The audit found that none of the 55 county’s school districts met that mandate during the year it studied.   

This year, Tomblin approved $1,000 teacher pay raises but vetoed a bill that would have given instructors more freedom in using their planning periods, saying it would have increased costs for county school boards.

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee praised Phares’ work and said the superintendent was usually available when issues needed to be discussed.

But Lee doesn’t understand that in light of hiring changes for teachers, “you don’t want to empower them to control their own planning periods,” he said. “We will try other avenues to ensure that a teacher’s planning period is their time to prepare for lessons.”

Phares hopes the state board embraces a model used in 16 other states that has a simple A through F grading scale to rate individual schools to replace a coding system last year that places each school in one of five categories

“We’re going to have some schools that are going to have low grades,” Phares said. “You’ve got to have the capacity to provide technical assistance and get them where they need to be.”