Missouri’s education commissioner survived a vote Tuesday by the state Board of Education to fire her at the bidding of Gov. Eric Greitens.
The board voted 4-4 on the firing, meaning Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven keeps her job — at least for now. The board is to meet again on Dec. 1.
Greitens appointees Eddy Justice, Doug Russell, Sonny Jungmeyer and Jennifer Edwards voted for the leadership change. A fifth Greitens appointee, Claudia Oñate Greim of Kansas City, joined with three board members who were not appointed by Greitens to oppose the firing.
Greim could not immediately be reached for comment.
Vandeven, in an email to media, said, “I look forward to the focus returning to educating our children.”
Greitens has tried for months to appoint enough board members to oust Vandeven and replace her with a longtime advocate for charter school expansion.
On Monday, Greitens rescinded his October appointment of John T. Sumners of Joplin after Sumners said he would not vote to fire Vandeven. The governor, in a last-minute effort to tilt the board’s vote, on Tuesday appointed Edwards, of Springfield, to replace Sumners just before the board’s meeting began.
Edwards, co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Missouri, was sworn in, although it remains unclear who administered the oath of office.
Edwards is actually the third person appointed to that seat on the board, raising 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.
Democrats say state law prohibits the governor from removing board members after they’ve been sworn in unless they’ve been given written notice and a hearing on charges of malfeasance. Greitens disagrees with that interpretation.
All three of Greitens’ appointments to that seat — Gelner, Sumners and Edwards — participated in Tuesday’s closed board meeting, although only Edwards got to cast a vote.
Board President Charlie Shields said after the meeting that it is unclear who has a rightful claim to the seat.
“I’ve spent the last days and hours listening to attorneys from both sides argue that question,” Shields said. “It’s hard to clarify, and ultimately it will be clarified by a judge.”
Sumners said that when he was appointed in October, “it was pretty well understood that one of our jobs would be to replace the current commissioner.”
But after talking with deputy education commissioners and other education leaders across the state, Sumners said he learned that Vandeven is very popular among school district leaders and had surrounded herself with “good people” whom he did not want to see lost in the shuffle.
The board is made up of eight members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. With Tuesday’s new appointment of Edwards, five members are Greitens appointees, although they still need approval from the Senate when it returns for the 2018 session in January.
In a statement released to the media, Greitens didn’t specifically address Vandeven or his efforts to get her fired.
Instead, he railed against a system he said is dominated by “insiders and bureaucrats who get paid real well, but it fails too many students, families, and teachers.”
He said there are too many bureaucrats in the public school system, singling out school administrators for being over paid.
“That money should go into the classroom. It should go to teachers,” he said, later adding: “Our teachers deserve better. Our students also deserve better.”
Greitens said in the last few years “our schools have been getting worse,” falling in national rankings for reading and math.
He repeatedly pointed the finger at “bureaucrats” who he says are benefiting from the status quo. And he accused these bureaucrats of being “willing to harass and intimidate anyone who stands up to them.”
“That won’t stop us from doing what's right,” Greitens said. “We’re fighting to get results for Missouri teachers and students.”
Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican and chairman of the Senate education committee, said Tuesday’s vote was a “win for public education in this state.
But he said it also will likely mean that Greitens’ appointments to the board will not survive the confirmation process.
“It’s going to be a problem,” he said. “These folks were willing to take a vote on an issue that they were not well informed on. Anyone who’s willing to make that kind of decision does not deserve to serve on the state board.”
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat who serves on the Senate education committee, celebrated Tuesday’s vote.
“Thankfully, the State Board of Education avoided a huge mistake today,” he said. “It seems like when Gov. Greitens fails, Missouri wins.”
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.
Kenneth Zeff, a charter school advocate from Georgia, is widely considered to be Greitens’ preference to replace Vandeven. But thus far the governor hasn’t spelled out his problems with Vandeven or say whom he’d like to see in her place.
“I’ve never been contacted,” said board member Victor Lenz, who was appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon. “I wish the governor would come talk to us about what he wants done for education, because maybe then we could work together. I’ve not heard anything about what they’re looking for or trying to do.”
Justice, one of Greitens’ appointees to the board, said the state has not been preparing students the way it should in areas like reading and math. He said the commissioner has set a path for Missouri schools that has not improved academic results in a meaningful way.
“The status quo has got to change,” Justice said, “and the best place to start is at the top by replacing the leader.”
Justice denied that he had agreed to vote to oust Vandeven as a condition of his appointment by Greitens. He said Greitens had attached no strings to his appointment.
Michael Jones, another Nixon appointee, said the debate about the commissioner’s job has become “a political issue, not an education issue.”
With another board meeting next week, the debate is far from finished.
“The right side prevailed today,” Jones said, “but I don’t think we’ve resolved anything.”
Shields, a former Republican state senator, said he hopes Vandeven stays in place.
“The commissioner has moved education forward in this state,” he said. “She is highly respected and I’d like to see her continue in that position.”
Rebeka McIntosh, director of Missouri National Education Association, said educators across the state support Vandeven and were happy with the outcome of the vote.
“Transparency has been our friend here,” McIntosh said. “Getting the word out about what was going on was a critical effort.”
She said Vandeven “has been a strong advocate for our public schools. There is no reason we can see for any type of job action against the commissioner. It is clearly political maneuvering.”
Raytown schools Superintendent Allan Markley, president of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, said he was glad Vandeven survived the vote and disappointed in Greiten’s tactics to force a change.
“It is sad to see our governor going about things this way,” said Markley. He said that way before Tuesday’s vote, school administrators had requested numerous meetings with the governor to talk about public education in Missouri.
“He doesn’t want to sit down with people who know public education in the state,” Markley said. “He thinks he knows better.”
Dan Clemens, superintendent of the North Kansas City Schools, said the conversation “needs to return to the over 900,000 students we serve in Missouri.”
“The politicization of the State Board of Education detracts from this all-important focus,” he said.