After months of wrangling, Gov. Eric Greitens got his wish and Missouri’s top education official was fired.
The Missouri State Board of Education, stacked with a majority of Greitens appointees, on Thursday will begin the work of hiring a new education commissioner to replace Margie Vandeven.
But what the governor is looking for in a new commissioner remains elusive.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Greitens has denounced low teacher pay, and he has long supported expansion of charter schools and other school choice initiatives. But the state’s education commissioner has little or no role in either issue.
Greitens’ campaign paid to fly a charter school advocate from Georgia to Missouri this summer, presumably to discuss the job of education commissioner. But the governor’s closest allies on the education board insist Greitens has never specifically said whom he has in mind for the job.
Vandeven told the Springfield News-Leader that the governor never expressed any concerns to her before she was fired.
“The commissioner has no control over teacher pay, and putting a new commissioner in there isn’t going to change that, unless the governor wants to eliminate all 518 school districts and collapse them under the control of the governor or the state board,” said Melissa Randol, executive director of the Missouri School Board Association. “If the desire is to expand charter schools, state law doesn’t allow the commissioner to do that.”
Further complicating matters is the fact that the Senate has confirmed none of Greitens’ five appointees.
And with opposition to their nominations mounting among some senators, and at least one vowing to filibuster to prevent their confirmation, there’s a chance the board members who discuss the future education commissioner Thursday afternoon won’t have their jobs when the hiring process begins in full next year.
“These folks were willing to take a vote on an issue that they were not well informed on,” said Sen. Gary Romine, a Farmington Republican who chairs the Senate education committee. “Anyone who’s willing to make that kind of decision does not deserve to serve on the state board.”
Greitens has spent most of the year trying to put enough people on the eight-member board to fire Vandeven.
There were several false starts.
One seat on the board, representing southwest Missouri, has had three appointees.
First, Greitens appointed Melissa Gelner of Springfield. He removed her from the board in September after she voiced concerns about the plan to oust Vandeven.
Gelner was replaced in October by John Sumners of Joplin. Greitens rescinded that appointment on Nov. 20, after Sumners said he would not vote to fire Vandeven.
The next day, in a last-minute effort to tilt the board’s vote, the governor appointed Jennifer Edwards of Springfield to replace Sumners.
Greitens got the five votes he need to oust Vandeven when one of his earlier appointees, Claudia Onate Greim of Kansas City, resigned late last month.
In her resignation letter, Greim said she left the state board because she was uncomfortable with the way the process to fill the board and oust Vandeven was playing out.
Eddy Justice, a Poplar Bluff Republican appointed to the board by Greitens in July, said the firing of Vandeven was motivated by the fact that “Missouri has lingered too long at the middle or back of academic progress.”
Justice said the search for a new education commissioner will start by finding a leader who “will pragmatically direct the future of Missouri education in a productive direction that will benefit all our kids and expand our economy.”
“Those who defend the status quo should be worried,” he said. “Quality educators should not.”
He was never asked by the governor or his staff to vote in any particular way, Justice told The Star last month. His appointment, he said, came with no strings attached or commitments to fire Vandeven.
Greitens was asked about the firing of Vandeven when he met last week with rural newspaper editors. He echoed Justice’s concerns that Missouri schools aren’t trending the right direction.
A change in leadership was needed, he said.
“We need to have folks that are making decisions in the best interest of students,” Greitens said, later adding, “What we need to have is leadership at the top.”
The board of education is scheduled to meet by conference call at 2 p.m. Thursday.