After months of backroom political maneuvering to oust Missouri’s top education leader, the state board of education wrangled Thursday over how to replace her.
In a teleconference call to establish the process by which they would find and hire a new Missouri commissioner of education, the same board majority that voted to fire Margie Vandeven earlier this month opted to begin accepting applications immediately.
Board member Victor Lenz called that a “slap in the face” to educators, because the board didn’t define applicant criteria or give education advocates, legislators and the public a chance to offer feedback on the application process.
Greitens appointees Eddy Justice, Doug Russell, Sonny Jungmeyer, Jennifer Edwards and Eric Teeman voted to begin taking applications on Friday, while the remaining three members, Charlie Shields, Mike Jones and Lenz, wanted a longer application process that would allow board members to collect input from stakeholders. At a future meeting the board could also determine whether to use a national search firm.
On Dec. 1 the board, stacked with Greiten appointees, voted to fire Vandeven effective immediately. That move came after several failed attempts by the governor to get his board appointments to vote Vandeven out, despite the support she had from education leaders across the state.
On Thursday, the board approved an application process that starts Friday and would close on Jan. 8, a day before the commissioners’ next scheduled meeting.
Board president Charlie Shields, who voted against opening the process immediately, said he found the decision problematic, since the short application process would close before the board can meet again to approve the criteria used to vet candidates.
He also added that it gave applicants, who would be compiling an application over the holidays, little guidance as to what to include.
“I think that’s a really short time frame to fill the position as important as the Commissioner of Education,” Shields said. “And you are doing that with no input as to what the characteristics and traits you are looking for are before the process ends.”
But the majority of members said they would reopen the application process if the board was not satisfied with the first round of candidates. They opted instead to republish the same broad list of characteristics that was used to hire Vandeven in 2014.
Russell suggested that by taking applications right away the board might find the best candidate as soon as Jan. 9.
“We have an opportunity in that way if we see somebody that we think is awesome then we can get the ball rolling faster,” said Eric Teeman, a former Raytown alderman whose appointment to the board this month led to the majority vote that ousted Vandeven.
While the governor has never said who he would like to see fill the education commissioner’s seat, news reports indicate he wants to see the spot filled with an advocate for school choice and charter school expansion.
Months before the Vandeven ouster, Greitens’ campaign for governor paid to fly in Kennth Zeff, a charter school advocate from Georgia. Zeff is widely considered to be Greitens’ preference to replace Vandeven.
Greitens had pledged during his 2016 campaign to support charter school expansion and education savings accounts. During his 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.
The board indicated Thursday that it was also open to receiving nominations for potential candidates.
Missouri Sen. Ed Emery, a Republican from Lamar, said Wednesday that he’d passed the governor the name of a person he thought would fit well as the new education commissioner. But he hadn’t heard back from the governor on that name and said he would not disclose it.
Emery said he had not confirmed information about the governor’s involvement in the process at this point. But he said at a meeting he attended this week with superintendents from around the state that he understood Greitens wanted to “accelerate” the hiring of a new commissioner to get it done by January.
By law the Missouri education commissioner is hired by the state board of education, the governor has no role. The board is made up of eight members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. All five of Greitens appointments still need senate approval.
Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican and chairman of the Senate education committee, told The Star after Vandeven was fired that it was likely that Greitens’ appointments to the board will not survive the confirmation process.
The Missouri General Assembly begins its session during the first week of January, but is not expected to take up the issue immediately.
In an interview following the meeting Justice, a board member from Poplar Bluff, said his vote to expedite the application process was not an effort to be in on hiring a new commissioner before the Senate reviews his position on the board.
“I made a commitment to do what is best in every decision for the children of Missouri,” Justice said. “If I determine my decision based on my Senate confirmation I am not doing what is best for the children of Missouri.”
He said his goal is to “get someone in the commissioner’s spot who is pragmatic in education.” Justice said he had not been given any name by Greiten’s office indicating who the governor wants seated as education commissioner.
On Thursday, Shields, board member Mike Jones and Lenz favored an application process that would open Jan. 15 and last at least 30 days. That timeline suggested finalists would be interviewed in March and a new commissioner in place by mid-April.
Lenz said opening the application process before a board committee could collect feedback on what kind of leader Missouri needs defied “common sense.”
“It’s a slap in the face to educators,” Lenz said. “It’s a slap in the face to legislators. It’s a slap in the face to executives in the Governor’s Office if you ask for applications to go without getting their input.”
But board members opted to close the application process in early January — several said that the input collected by a board committee could be used to vet candidates that have already applied — by a vote of 5-3.
“A familiar number,” Shields said when the vote was done.