Two more twists have developed in the politically induced game of musical chairs that has plagued the Missouri Board of Education over the last few weeks.
John T. Sumners, who was appointed to the board by Gov. Eric Greitens and then removed days later by the governor, on Tuesday sued Greitens and the eight members of the board. The suit, filed in Cole County Circuit Court, seeks to end the controversy over who is a true member of the board.
A second suit was filed later Tuesday by a Springfield teacher, claiming the board violated the Missouri Sunshine law. The suit says the board in an illegal closed-door session discussed and decided who should be allowed to vote whether to fire Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven.
The governor has been trying to get the board to fire Vandeven by appointing board members who agree with him. The governor wants to replace her with a charter school expansion advocate and says he is fighting for kids.
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However, some of those board members, including Sumners, have refused to remove Vandeven.
In his suit, Sumners “seeks a declaration that he is a member of the State Board of Education” and an injunction ensuring his ability to participate as a board member.
Sumners, a retired pastor from Joplin, was appointed to the board by Greitens on Oct. 26 and sworn in five days later. Then last week Greitens removed Sumners when he learned Sumners did not intend to vote the way the governor wanted.
In a last-minute effort to tilt the board’s vote, the governor appointed Jennifer Edwards of Springfield to replace Sumners. He made the appointment just before the board held a specially called closed meeting Nov. 21.
Greitens has appointed five of the eight board members, but in a 4-4 vote at the Nov. 21 meeting Vandeven maintained her position. A fifth Greitens appointee, Claudia Oñate Greim of Kansas City, joined with three board members not appointed by Greitens to oppose the firing.
Sumners showed up at the meeting but was prohibited from participating in the vote.
The second lawsuit, filed by teacher Laurie Sullivan, says such a vote never should have occurred because board members allegedly made a decision behind closed doors about who would vote. And that decision, said Duane Martin, Sullivan’s attorney, is not one allowed to be made in a closed session.
Martin said Sullivan’s suit seeks to have the court declare that the board violated the Sunshine law. And, he said, it asks the court to stop anyone from voting as a member of the board representing the 7th Congressional District in southwest Missouri — the board seat being challenged by Sumners — until a public majority vote recognizes the appropriate individual for that seat.
Greitens had pledged during his campaign for governor in 2016 to support charter school expansion and education savings accounts. During the campaign, he accepted more than $370,000 from some of the country’s top school-choice proponents, including Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. education secretary.
In the Nov. 21 vote on Vandeven, Greitens appointees Eddy Justice, Doug Russell, Sonny Jungmeyer and Jennifer Edwards voted for the leadership change. Edwards, however, was actually the third person Greitens had appointed to that board seat, raising the first legal questions about who should actually serve in that seat.
In August, Greitens appointed Melissa Gelner of Springfield. She was sworn in on Aug. 15 and removed by the governor in September after she voiced concerns about the plan to oust Vandeven. Sumners was Gelner’s replacement.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that on Tuesday, Greitens talked about his actions with the school board during a chat on social media. He did not directly address his reason for wanting Vandeven out.
“We’re going to appoint people to the state Board of Education who recognize we’ve got to fight for our kids,” Greitens said. “I want every kid in the state of Missouri to have the same opportunity I had. We want to make sure they are prepared for the future.”
Sumners argues in his lawsuit that Greitens broke the law when he tried to remove him. And that because he was illegally removed he remains a member of the board and deserves voting rights.
The suit statest Missouri law allows the governor to remove a member of the board but first he must give them notice, provide them an opportunity for a hearing, and show malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance in office.
“There was no notice, no hearing, no charge of misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance so he has not been removed,” said James R. Layton, attorney representing Sumners in the suit.
The board is set to hold a regularly scheduled meeting at 10 a.m. Friday in Jefferson City. Shields said it is very possible that during that meeting members could call a closed session and revisit the vote on Vandeven.