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Published in Print: December 11, 2002, as Attendance 'Mandatory' For W. Va. Board

Attendance 'Mandatory' For W. Va. Board

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When Howard M. Persinger Jr. took over as the president of the West Virginia state board of education in October, he had one chief concern: If just two board members missed a meeting, the board would not be able to function.

With three vacancies, the nine-seat board barely had a quorum.

"I looked around and said, 'We are a motley crew. But we are hard workers. We have the best interest of the children in mind,'" Mr. Persinger recalled. "But if someone gets sick and can't make a meeting, you worry."

West Virginia's board saw its membership drop after its former president resigned amid a scandal, just two weeks after another member moved. A third member had stepped down several months earlier.

The board still isn't whole. Thanks to a recent appointment by Gov. Bob Wise, though, it is down by only two members— unless you count Sheila Hamilton, whose term expired Nov. 4, but who is staying on the board until a replacement is found.

Sound confusing? Not to worry, said Mr. Persinger.

In his view, the vacancies haven't caused any disruptions in overseeing the state's 834 public elementary and secondary schools. To the contrary, he added, pointing out that the streamlined board has taken the lead on several issues.

For example, the board demanded an investigation recently into allegations that state education department employees may have arranged special deals for a contractor and classroom- furniture supplier after the 2001 floods in McDowell and Wyoming counties. Subsequently, state schools Superintendent David Stewart launched an internal investigation into the incident.

Not everyone is so upbeat about the situation, however.

"I think people are focused on what is going to be the future makeup of the board," said Howard M. O'Cull, the executive director of the West Virginia School Boards Association. "There are some people who think the board has been marginalized. We don't share that view, but we know it's out there. The board is solidified when it is full."

Some observers point out that the West Virginia board members now have more individual power than they would on a full board. For example, two members could derail an issue by not showing up for a vote, said David Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, based in Alexandria, Va.

"Our board doesn't work that way," said Sandra M. Chapman, the board's vice president. "We will speak and vote our minds.

"I know the governor is aware that we are awaiting appointments," she continued. "I don't think it is a problem if he takes his time. I view it as a compliment that we are functioning quite well."

Opportunity for Governor

The board elected as its new president Mr. Persinger, who took over the helm of the state board after former President J.D. Morris resigned in October. Mr. Morris abruptly quit during plea negotiations on charges that he had embezzled money from the bank he used to run. He has since pleaded guilty to one count of embezzlement. His sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 3.

Just two weeks earlier, board member Jim McCallum, a lawyer, had resigned to move to North Carolina. The two unexpected departures added to the one longstanding vacancy created by Cleo Mathews, who resigned last year after she was elected mayor of Hinton, W.Va. Her slot was filled recently, when Gov. Wise appointed retired Boone County teacher Delores W. Cook.

And then there is the need to replace Ms. Hamilton whose nine-year term was up last month. Board members are appointed by the governor to staggered terms.

"We are looking for her replacement," said Chip Slaven, a spokesman for the Democratic governor. "In the meantime, we still have her on the board—a very capable, experienced person. So now we have only one or two vacancies, depending on how you look at it."

Gov. Wise has announced that when Sen. Lloyd G. Jackson III, the chairman of the state Senate's education committee, finishes his legislative term in January, he will be appointed to the board.

Analysts point out that the confusion and concern have given way to a chance for Mr. Wise to appoint almost half of the board. That could be a powerful tool for forging his agenda and leaving a legacy in education. Two of the seven board members were appointed by former Gov. Cecil Underwood, a Republican and three were appointed by former Gov. Gaston Caperton, a Democrat.

This is a critical time for education in West Virginia. The state faces many challenges, such as scrutinizing the school funding formula, developing a philosophy on academic standards, and considering new federal demands on states under the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

"Education is at a crossroads," said Mr. O'Cull of the state school boards' association. "The governor has a lot of things to think about."

Observers say Gov. Wise wants to shape a board more in-line with his views on key issues.

For example, Mr. Wise, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives when he was elected governor in 2000, campaigned on his belief in small schools. And as governor, he has been less aggressive than the board on the issue of consolidating small, mostly rural schools.

Meanwhile, the governor is making his board picks a priority.

"It's a strange and unusual occurrence to have so many vacancies," Mr. Slaven said. But, he continued, the governor "would rather take the time to pick the right people rather than just fill the vacancies quickly."

Vol. 22, Issue 15, Pages 13,16

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