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Missouri Senate’s special session leaves state school board in continued limbo

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

As the Missouri Senate extends its session to investigate possible wrongdoing by the governor, it’s also prolonging the state school board’s inability to function normally.

The State Board of Education has three members currently, not enough for the board to have a five-member quorum and hold meetings. Yet under state law, the board must meet in June. If and when that meeting will take place is not certain, and what happens if it doesn’t is also a question.

“There’s no clarity here,” said Michael Wolff, a former Missouri Supreme Court judge, after looking into scenarios for filling the school board in time to meet in June.

The board hasn’t had enough members to meet since January.

The Senate has refused to confirm Gov. Eric Greitens’ five nominees, which would give the board its full eight members, as retribution for the governor’s efforts to fire education Commissioner Margie Vandeven in December. Greitens did so by stacking the board with five loyalists through recess appointments. That angered senators, who have refused to consider those nominees when they convened a few weeks later.

State education officials insist business is taking place and schools are open and running. But the to-do list for the state board is getting longer. Because the board hasn’t met, a half-dozen charter schools need their authorizations renewed; an updating of state education standards is on hold; and the commissioner's position is still vacant.

Meanwhile, the governor is unable to nominate recess appointments while the legislature remains in session. The General Assembly’s 30-day special session investigating the governor will overlap the board’s scheduled meeting June 12. The new meeting date has been penciled in for June 26.

“That’s about as late in the month and then still be able to get our meeting held in June, as statute requires,” said Roger Dorson, interim commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

When the Senate adjourns, Greitens can then fill the board with recess appointments. If lawmakers decide they need more time to consider impeaching the governor, the special session could be extended into July.

What’s held up

Lafayette Preparatory Academy is one of six charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City that is in the final year of its five-year charter. Lafayette Prep has been reauthorized by its sponsor, the University of Missouri - St. Louis, but it also needs final sign off by the state school board. That was supposed to happen in January.

“There’s been this uncertainty around when the next meeting will be held, it just has definitely put us in a holding pattern,” said Susan Marino, Lafayette Prep’s executive director.

The school is planning an addition onto its building in the Lafayette Square neighborhood of south St. Louis. The plan is a year behind schedule for a few reasons, but Marino said uncertainty around charter renewal has been a factor in securing funding.

“Initially there was some hesitation, there was some concern because it is uncharted territory. We didn’t know what this meant, it hasn’t happened,” she said.

Marino has conferred with DESE officials, who assured her that the school can plan to open for the next term, because UMSL has reauthorized its charter.

The State Board of Education also needs to update the learning standards it uses to measure schools’ performance. And still, the commissioner’s position remains open. Ten people applied when it first opened in December. Those applications have been left unattended because it’s the board’s job to fill the position.

Dorson said his staff is working on “contingencies” in case the board is unable to meet in June. It’s never violated the law, so Dorson isn’t sure what the repercussions there may be.

“We’re working as if we’re going to have a board meeting,” he said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.