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Greitens’ bid to install new education commissioner fails

Provided | Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Margie Vandeven, commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, right, visits with students in Warren County in 2015.

Updated at 2:15 p.m. with governor's comments —

Missouri’s commissioner of education survived a rare move to oust her by appointees of Republican Gov. Eric Greitens.

The State Board of Education, though stacked with appointees by Greitens, did not vote in favor of firing Margie Vandeven in a closed-door meeting Tuesday. The board tied 4-4.

Eddy Justice, Doug Russell, Sonny Jungmeyer and Jennifer Edwards voted to fire Vandeven. Board president Charlie Shields, Vic Lenz, Mike Jones and Claudia Oñate Greim voted against the motion, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“Speaking as Board President, I think the commissioner has moved education forward in this state," Shields said. "She is highly respected, (and) I would like to see her continue in that position and (that) we continue to make progress.”

Greitens appointed five of the eight board members in recent months, though he’s had trouble getting his appointees to be on the same page. Tim Sumners was dropped Monday night, because he expressed reservations about removing Vandeven. Greitens named Edwards to the board shortly before the meeting. Edwards is a Springfield native and president and co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Missouri.

Melissa Gelner says she was removed from the board in September because she rebuffed pressure from the governor to fire Vandeven.

Oñate Greim, a recent Greitens appointee, broke with the governor.

“I look forward to the focus returning to educating our children,” said Vandeven in a statement released by the department.

A number of education groups and lawmakers praised the board's decision to retain Vandeven. Charles Smith of the Missouri National Education Association said the vote "should end the unnecessary chaos created by Gov. Greitens."

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said in a statement that the board members had "the courage to stand up for Missouri’s school children and refused to be forced into a bad deal by Gov. Greitens."

"Missouri’s public schools have made tremendous improvements under Commissioner Vandeven, and I look forward to seeing those successes continue with her at the helm,” Walsh said.

Greitens didn't directly address the board's vote in a lengthy statement. He railed against "too many bureaucrats" in the state's public schools who are wasting taxpayer money and "desperate to prevent change."

"That money should go into the classroom," he said. "Schools should serve kids. Our kids and families deserve better."

Lawmakers, education groups rallied behind Vandeven

As speculation of her ouster neared, Vandeven received support from legislative members of both parties, education organizations, and superintendents.

Three Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the State Board of Education praising Vandeven’s work with both the legislature and local school districts. They urged board members not to fire her. House Democrats have accused Greitens of breaking the law when he removed Gelner.

Dozens of school superintendents line the hallway outside a closed-door Missouri State Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 to show support for Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
Credit Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Dozens of school superintendents line the hallway outside a closed-door Missouri State Board of Education meeting Tuesday to show support for Commissioner Margie Vandeven.

The Missouri Association of School Administrators, an organization of school superintendents, raised concerns over the meeting happening behind closed doors in a letter to the board. More than 50 superintendents went to Jefferson City to show support for Vandeven.

"The commissioner, I think, has set a good course of people cooperating and collaborating, working together for our students and for the future of students in Missouri," Parkway superintendent Kevin Marty said. "For that, I give her a lot of credit, and we want to see that leadership continue."

The governor’s office has maintained his actions are within state law, adding that Greitens has the ability to appoint and remove board members before they’re confirmed by the Senate.

Vandeven became education commissioner in January 2015. She’s a native of Missouri and began her teaching career in O’Fallon.

Greitens wants to bring in a commissioner who is more supportive of school choice efforts, including charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Greitens campaigned on that platform last year. Efforts to expand school choice faltered in this year’s legislative session.

Another question as arisen as to who is the actual board member representing southwestern Missouri. Melissa Gelner and Tim Sumners jointly submitted a letter asking the State Board to legally clarify who holds the seat on the board. Shields told reporters that he’s not sure the Board can answer that question: “I think ultimately that will be decided by a court of law.”

The State Board of Education’s next meeting is next week, December 1st. It’s possible that another attempt to oust Vandeven may be scheduled. 

“I think nothing has really been resolved," said Jones. "I think the right side has prevailed today, but I don’t think we resolved anything. This is a political issue; this is not an education issue.”

St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum contributed reporting.

Follow Marshall and Ryan on Twitter: @MarshallGReport; @rpatrickdelaney

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.
Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.