Margie Vandeven is chosen from within to be the next Missouri education commissioner

Margie Vandeven, current deputy commissioner at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, will take over as commissioner Jan. 1.
Margie Vandeven, current deputy commissioner at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, will take over as commissioner Jan. 1.

The Missouri school board stayed in-house in picking the next education commissioner Wednesday, unanimously choosing Deputy Commissioner Margie Vandeven.

Vandeven, who has led the state’s efforts to increase schools’ accountability and performance, was chosen over four current or former superintendents who joined her as finalists.

Vandeven will take charge Jan. 1, succeeding Chris Nicastro at a time when the education world is torn over common learning standards, school choice and the accountability of school and teacher performance — as well as a need to heal some political wounds in the Kansas City area.

Vandeven says she is ready.

“I’m absolutely thrilled and honored,” she said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “The people of Missouri want a lot of the same things. We just need to find that common ground and move forward.”

She will oversee a transition to potentially new Missouri Learning Standards, new assessments, the state’s operation of the unaccredited Normandy School District and the complications of a student transfer law.

The heart of her work, she said, will be continuing the state’s Top 10 by 20 initiative to be ranked among the nation’s best in educational performance measures by 2020.

Vandeven’s “passion” and “commitment” and the board’s confidence in the Top 10 by 20 plan earned her the board’s unanimous vote, said state board president Peter Herschend.

“She is probably the best expert in the state in the administration of those goals, the formulation of them and seeing them through,” he said.

She will have some work to do to restore confidence in the department with some Kansas City area superintendents who were frustrated by Nicastro’s decisions regarding Kansas City’s accreditation and the impact of the student transfer law.

Lee’s Summit Superintendent David McGehee made it known in a tweet after the board’s announcement that he wanted new leadership from outside the department.

“Chance to heal and regain trust is lost,” he wrote. “Shame on you @MOEducation State Board. Reality and perception collide with no surprises here.”

Asked if he wanted to elaborate, McGehee said through a district spokeswoman that the tweet could stand alone.

Vandeven pledged to work with superintendent groups throughout the state, including the Kansas City area.

“They are critical to moving the state forward,” she said, “and staying focused on the Top 10 by 20.”

Herschend earlier this year had said the board would be ready to name its new commissioner by the end of October, choosing from candidates known at that time and in a closed process.

Several superintendent groups across the state complained and urged the board to open the search for more candidates and public input.

The board ended up with more than 40 nominations and 15 applicants — with the top internal candidate emerging in the end.

“I believe this (promoting Vandeven) is where they were headed all along,” said Gayden Carruth, executive director of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City, which had joined the call for a more open search.

“But we stand ready to work with Margie in her role as the new commissioner,” Carruth said. “We were concerned about the ‘how’ (of the selection process), not the ‘who.’”

Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said he is eager to continue working with Vandeven in improving the district’s performance.

The district had some conflicts with Nicastro over control of the district as it lost its accreditation between January 2012 and August 2014.

And Vandeven played a role in 2013 in the department’s support of CEE-Trust, an Indianapolis-based consultant that was developing a plan that would have overhauled the district as a network of independent public school operators.

While Vandeven’s role is a concern, Green said, he is more encouraged by the district’s work with Vandeven and her team in developing the strategies and programs to improve school performance.

“Kansas City Public Schools wants to have a good relationship with the chief state officer — needs to have a good relationship — if we are going to continue our rise,” Green said.

Vandeven worked well with the district as the state put higher accountability standards into place, Green said.

“And if she carries that type of leadership in her role as commissioner,” he said, “we are encouraged.”

The state’s largest teachers union also will be watching to see what kind of stamp Vandeven will put on her work as commissioner, said Mark Jones, the political director for the Missouri National Education Association.

“We’ve worked well with Margie,” he said. “We’ve had a good relationship and we hope to continue.”

Charter schools are likely to continue to benefit from the department’s support with the promotion of Vandeven, said Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association.

Vandeven was integral in the department’s work to hold charter schools more accountable in their performance while preserving their autonomy, Thaman said.

“I believe the state board of education made a good choice,” he said.

Vandeven had served in the role of deputy commissioner for learning services, expanding her previous role of assistant commissioner over school quality.

Before her state roles, Vandeven spent 13 years as an English language arts teacher and administrator in private schools in Missouri and Maryland.

The other finalists for commissioner were Joplin Superintendent C.J. Huff, former Springfield superintendent Norm Ridder, Branson Superintendent Doug Hayter and former Wentzville superintendent Terry Adams.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.