Five education nominees criticized for lacking independence from Gov. Eric Greitens appear unlikely to clear Senate confirmation and could be barred for life from serving on the Missouri State Board of Education.
Poplar Bluff insurance agent Eddy Justice is the only one of Greitens' nominees to clear a Senate committee vote, but when his nomination came up on the floor Tuesday, senators angry with him filibustered, delaying a vote until Senate leaders gave up.
Senators could consider Justice's nomination again, but his critics promise to block any attempt. Senate leaders don't see him winning approval before the end of the regular legislative session next month.
"We tried, and they filibustered, and I’m told it’ll be filibustered again, and I don’t want to put somebody through that," said Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin.
In the meantime, regular board activities, like disciplining teachers, renewing charter schools and hiring an education commissioner, are on hold. Officials say that's a detriment to Missouri education.
Greitens appointed Justice and four other nominees to the eight-member board of education last year, where they served while they waited for lawmakers to come back for the legislative session and consider their nominations. In a 5-3 vote in December, the Greitens appointees immediately voted to fire education commissioner Margie Vandeven.
Now, senators are concerned Greitens' nominees won't make independent decisions. Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, accused Justice of doing Greitens' "bidding." Other lawmakers have said Greitens used his power to stack the education board to fire Vandeven and replace her with an education leader who is more of an advocate for school choice.
“He voted to just do the bidding of the governor, and we can’t have that," Schaaf said. "The state school board is supposed to be an independent body, not doing the bidding of the governor.”
Justice rebuffed that notion. He said his vote was based on a belief that Missouri's education leadership was insufficient, not an endorsement of education choice policies such as vouchers or expanded charter schools.
“The idea that I am unable to be an independent voice on the board is unfounded, and anyone that knows me knows that I am committed to doing what’s right for Missouri students and not to being a puppet of anybody," Justice said.
Schaaf and Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, filibustered for about 20 minutes before Richard relented and withdrew his attempt to pass Justice's confirmation through. Richard said that was likely the last lawmakers would see of Justice's nomination, but he could bring Justice's nomination up again this session.
“But if he does, we’re going to filibuster it and kill off that nomination," Schaaf said.
Richard said people have asked him about the other nominees: Eric Teeman of Raytown, Jennifer Edwards of Springfield, Marvin Jungmeyer of Russellville and John Russell of Lebanon.
Greitens withdrew and again appointed his nominees in January, a procedural move to buy them more time to clear Senate confirmation. If they don't get Senate support by the end of the legislative session on May 18, they'll be barred for life from serving on the board. Schaaf said Greitens should withdraw the nominees.
Greitens' office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, Greitens' tactic left the eight-member board with only three active members, not enough for a quorum. Because he withdrew and appointed the five prospective members during session, they can't serve until they win Senate approval. Until the board has a quorum, it can't hold regular meetings and attend business, like hiring a commissioner to replace Vandeven.
Roger Dorson, deputy commissioner of finance for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is acting commissioner.
State education officials said they don't know when the board will be able to meet again, and 10 applicants for Missouri's top education job, education commissioner, sit on a shelf, Dorson said.
Also piling up are teacher disciplinary actions, including requests for a license to be revoked or for a revocation to be appealed, both requiring board review. Dorson said the state board has at least two dozen of those waiting on a quorum.
“None of the teachers with disciplinary action against them are currently in the classroom,” Dorson said.
Justice said the lack of a quorum on the board is a "danger to the students of Missouri."
Romine said the board is required by the state Constitution to meet only twice a year, but Justice said members typically meet 10 times a year.
Also left in limbo are charter school renewals, which require board approval. Charters come up for renewal every five years, and Dorson said he's not sure how many are waiting on the board.
"But none of them will close because the board doesn't have a quorum," Dorson said. "They will get extensions and carry on as usual."
Dorson and Missouri State Board of Education President Charlie Shields said the biggest issue is that without a board quorum the state cannot launch the sixth level of the Missouri School Improvement Program, the state's school accountability system for reviewing and accrediting public school districts.
The new version of the program has been developed by the state department’s staff but “not having a board has delayed the launch process,” Dorson said.