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Missouri’s new governor expected to soothe relationship with state educators

Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Parson would become governor if Eric Greitens left office.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Parson will become Missouri governor Friday. An early task will be filling the State Board of Education.

When Lt. Gov. Mike Parson becomes governor on Friday, the clock will be ticking to fill several seats on the board that oversees Missouri’s K-12 schools. Yet the soon-to-be governor’s platform on education is thin.

“It’s sort of an unknown, where he’s going to be at on individual policy,” said Mike Lodewegen, director of government affairs for the organization representing superintendents, the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

The state’s education establishment is optimistic about working with a man described as humble and pragmatic. It’s a sharp contrast with their views toward current Gov. Eric Greitens after a shakeup of the State Board of Education and firing of the education commissioner late last year.

Five of the eight seats on the state school board have been vacant since December. Greitens angered both educators and lawmakers when he used recess appointments to stack the board with loyalists who fired Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven. As retribution, the Senate refused to confirm those appointees. But a side effect has been some paralysis of education policy.

Now a legally mandated meeting in June is looming. The commissioner position is still vacant; six charter schools also are awaiting authorization from the board; an overhaul of the state’s accountability standards is stalled.

University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Uzziel Hernandez Pecina serves on a committee that’s considering different certification exams for school administrators. But Pecina’s workgroup, the Missouri Professors of Educational Administration, needs the state board to weigh in.

“We charged ourselves to continue to move on and not stop, because the work we’re doing we believe is very important to our state,” Pecina said.

Putting the right people in those five board positions is “critically” important, said Kevin Sandlin, executive director of the Missouri Association of Rural Education.

Sandlin said Parson should “go through the right process” to fill those seats. In other words, work with the Senate to find board members and not make last-minute appointments as Greitens did.

People who have known Parson through his public-service career say he is the kind of guy to listen and work with people.

Former Dallas County school administrator Jon Turner worked with the lieutenant governor when Parson represented the southwestern Missouri district in the state Senate. Turner says he would often reach out to school leaders, sometimes from the floor of the Senate.

“And that’s relatively rare among state representatives and state senators,” said Turner, who is now a professor at Missouri State University. “And so, I like that attitude of his, where if something came up on the floor that related to public education, he was very quick to contact area administrators to get their opinions.”

University of Missouri System leadership said Parson is “a strong champion for higher education.” As a senator, Parson expanded the amount of money public universities can raise through bonds for capital improvements.

“He has supported higher education in the state of Missouri and demonstrated his dedication to providing affordable high-quality higher education to every Missouri citizen,” said UM System President Mun Choi and University of Missouri-Columbia Chancellor Alexander Cartwright in a joint statement.

Parson supports increased local control for Missouri’s 500-plus school districts and has supported funding to education, both K-12 and higher ed, speaking out against cuts to the state’s public universities in recent years. He’s also a supporter of jobs programs.

Parson and wife Teresa co-chair the board of Jobs for America’s Graduates-Missouri, which works with at-risk high school students to finish high school and enter the workforce. JAG-Missouri Executive Director Paul Kincaid began working with then-Senator Parson when Kincaid was government affairs director for Missouri State University.

“He will put education toward the top of his list, because he really believes Missouri is going to succeed if it has an educated workforce,” Kincaid said.

Parson’s support for funding education, Kincaid added, is “not blind allegiance.”

A more measured approach is welcomed by those in education. Melissa Randol, executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association, said partisan politics should be absent from education policy.

“Unfortunately we had some struggles this last year with that,” she said.

KCUR education reporter Elle Moxley contributed reporting.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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