Gov. Eric Greitens’ push to oust Missouri’s top education official appears to have once again hit a roadblock.
The Missouri Board of Education is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning in Jefferson City to discuss hiring and firing in the state’s education department.
Greitens has tried for months to appoint enough people to the board to fire Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven and replace her with a longtime advocate for charter schools.
Because of the retirement earlier this month of board member Joe Driskell, Greitens was able to appoint a fifth person to the eight-member board, presumably giving him the majority he needed to oust Vandeven. It was widely expected Vandeven could be voted out at Tuesday’s meeting.
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But one of his own nominees appears to have sunk the effort.
John Sumners, a chaplain from Joplin appointed by Greitens to the board in October, has said he won’t vote to fire Vandeven on Tuesday. The three members of the board who were not appointed by Greitens — Board President Charlie Shields, Victor Lenz and Michael Jones — also oppose the firing.
It’s the second time one of Greitens’ own appointees has balked at his plans. Melissa Gelner, of Springfield, was appointed to the board in July, sworn in on Aug. 15 and removed from the board by Greitens in September.
Gelner said at the time she lost the job because she refused to go along with the plan to fire Vandeven.
Sumners said that when the governor appointed him, “it was pretty well understood that one of our jobs would be to replace the current commissioner.” He told The Star opposition to that push could cost him his spot on the board.
Greitens hasn’t stated publicly why he wants to fire Vandeven, nor has he said specifically whom he’d replace her with.
But this summer the governor’s campaign paid for charter school advocate Kenneth Zeff of Georgia to travel to Missouri, sparking speculation that he’s in line to take the job if Greitens can get Vandeven out of the way.
Zeff was previously chief operations officer for a charter school management organization serving students in Los Angeles and New York. He and Greitens were White House fellows in 2005-2006 under then-President George W. Bush.
Greitens had pledged during his campaign for governor to support charter school expansion and education savings accounts. During his 2016 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.
But his efforts to oust Vandeven have met with fierce resistance from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
On Monday, the Republican leaders of the Missouri Senate and House education committees wrote a letter to board members calling the push to oust Vandeven “puzzling and deeply troubling.”
The letter concluded with the GOP lawmakers urging the board of education to “abandon efforts to remove Commissioner Vandeven.”
All five of Greitens’ nominees need to be confirmed by the Missouri Senate when it returns to the statehouse in January.
In the latest twist, Greitens is engaged in a back-and-forth with House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat who says the governor violated the law when he unilaterally removed Gelner from her board seat.
Beatty pointed to a state law that says because Gelner was already sworn in as a board member, the governor was required to a provide her written notice and a hearing on charges of malfeasance before withdrawing her nomination.
Greitens’ spokesman, Parker Briden, said Beatty’s interpretation of state law is wrong and her accusations are “nothing more than a political stunt.”