Government & Politics

School leaders push against Gov. Greitens’ efforts to oust education commissioner

Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven
Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven File

Three of Gov. Eric Greitens’ new appointees to the Missouri State Board of Education have called for a special meeting next week to discuss hiring and firing in the state’s education department.

Education leaders in the Kansas City area say they are concerned the governor and his appointees are orchestrating the meeting in an effort to oust education commissioner Margie Vandeven and to undermine public education in Missouri.

The board is made up of eight members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Five of the current members are Greitens appointees, although they still need approval from the Senate when it returns for the 2018 session in January.

State Rep. David Wood, a Republican from Versailles and chairman of the legislature’s joint committee on education, said the governor’s appointees also intend to replace Republican Charlie Shields as board president.

Wood, in a statement released Monday morning, lent support to both Vandeven and Shields, saying he credits Vandeven with fostering an atmosphere of cooperation and transparency with the General Assembly. He has “a great deal of respect for Mr. Shields” and thinks “he is the right person to lead Missouri’s system of education.”

Wood urged the board of education “to stay the course and retain Dr. Vandeven as commissioner and Charlie Shields as president of the State Board of Education until after the Senate confirmation hearings on the new members.”

Such a delay, Wood said, “will give the legislature a chance to determine if these appointments are non-political and have the best interest of Missouri education as their motivation.”

The three school board members who asked for the meeting next week are Eddy Justice, Doug Russell and Claudia Onate Greim.

Greim, who lives in Kansas City, did not respond to a request for comment about the purpose of next weeks’ proposed meeting.

Recent state board appointee John T. “Tim” Sumners, a chaplain from Joplin, told The Star Monday afternoon that he doesn’t understand why the governor wants to remove Vandeven and acknowledged that not supporting the move would likely cost him his appointment.

Sumners said that when he was appointed by the governor, “it was pretty well understood that one of our jobs would be to replace the current commissioner.”

But after hearing from the state’s deputy education commissioners and other education leaders at the state level, he said he was convinced Vandeven had “surrounded herself with great people” whom he doesn’t want to see lost in the shuffle.

“I just can’t agree with what they are doing at this particular time, in regards to the commissioner, at least not without more information,” Sumners said.

Greitens’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

In an email to fellow state board members this weekend, Sumners suggested that before addressing Vandeven’s future as state education commissioner, the board should meet with the commission’s and the governor’s top staff to talk about possible resolutions without a department shakeup.

“It is obvious what has been going on,” said Allan Markley, president of the Missouri Association of School Administrators and superintendent of Raytown schools. “With state board appointees, the governor is pushing to expand charter schools.

“We know what his political agenda is, to expand school choice. He has made it known. And this is the way that he has chosen to go about it. He is politicizing the state board.”

The Missouri State Board of Education was designed to function as an independent, non-political, eight-member board that would not have any party in majority.

Markley said school district leaders across the state support the job Vandeven has been doing and see no reason for her removal.

“Since she has been in that position, we have noticed a remarkable difference in the the department’s communication with the district,” Markley said.

Dale Herl, superintendent of Independence schools, called Vandeven “a tremendous leader for all school districts in the state of Missouri and an advocate for students and teachers.”

He said public education is “at a crucial point and the potential firing of Commissioner Vandeven appears to be a step in an attempt to launch an agenda of charter schools throughout the state of Missouri.”

Sumners is not the first of Greitens’ appointees to have trouble with the alleged push to remove Vandeven.

In September, Greitens appointee Melissa Gelner said she was removed after she refused to comply with a request from the governor’s office to quickly vote to oust Vandeven.

Some Missouri lawmakers have speculated that the governor wants to push through a vote against Vandevens before confirmation of his appointees. All five remain interim appointees until Senate confirmation.

Lawmakers suspect the governor is worried all five might not be confirmed, which would disrupt efforts to oust the commissioner.

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.

Vandeven, who’s been a public schools educator since 1990, has been education commissioner since January 2015.

As for whom Greitens hopes will replace Vandeven, the governor’s campaign this summer paid for charter school advocate Kenneth Zeff of Georgia to travel to Missouri, presumably to interview for Vandeven’s job.

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.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock