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Missouri education commissioner ousted by gubernatorial appointees

Missouri education commissioner ousted by gubernatorial appointees

December 1st, 2017 by Associated Press and Bob Watson in Missouri News
Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven

Missouri Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

Margie Vandeven was fired Friday as Missouri's Education commissioner, effective immediately, by a 5-3 vote.

She had been commissioner for nearly three years. And her removal also means she loses a seat on a national board of state education officials that she just had been elected to last month.

"I am an educator (and) a teacher," Vandeven told reporters and supporters at the beginning of a 50-minute news conference following the board's vote. "Like most Missouri teachers, I focus on students.

"Unlike most of them, I've been able to focus on 918,000 of our students as commissioner of education.

"It has been an opportunity that I will forever cherish."

Vandeven said after taking some time off to spend with her family, she will continue to work in education and "fight for children and teachers."

The five votes to fire her came from Gov. Eric Greitens' new appointees to the eight-member board — Marvin "Sonny" Jungmeyer, of Russellville; Eddy Justice, of Poplar Bluff; John D. "Doug" Russell, of Lebanon; Jennifer Edwards, of Springfield; and Eric Teerman, of Raytown — who have not yet been confirmed by the state Senate but have the power to act as soon as they take their oath of office.

All five declined to comment as they left the 75-minute closed session, and none attended the news conference that followed.

However, Jungmeyer said Friday evening statement: "Education spending has roughly doubled over the past 20 years, yet Missouri's national assessment scores have remained relatively flat.

"In Missouri, too many students fail to score even proficient in reading and math. Our students, teachers and families deserve better.

"Today, the Board acted boldly to replace a leader who has embraced this failing status quo."

And Greitens said, in a statement released minutes after the vote was announced: "Today, kids, teachers and families won.

"The State Board of Education voted for new leadership for our school system. That's a major step in the right direction as we work to improve public education in Missouri."

The governor has not said why he thinks Vandeven should have been replaced — although published and broadcast reports have said he favors hiring a man from Georgia who's a supporter of expanding charter schools.

To get to Friday's vote, Greitens named several people to vacancies on the board and removed two of his appointees from the 7th Congressional District when they said they wouldn't vote immediately to fire Vandeven.

The governor's office says state law gives him the power to rescind any appointment before the nominee has been approved by the state Senate.

State law allows people appointed to boards and commissions while the Legislature is not in-session to begin serving immediately, then face Senate confirmation when the next General Assembly begins.

But the law involving the State Board of Education says once someone is a member of the board, they can be removed by the governor only after a specific accusation of "malfeasance, misfeasance or non-feasance in office" and a hearing on those charges.

John T. Sumners, of Joplin, filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging his removal from the board and asking the Cole County Circuit Court to issue a temporary injunction blocking Jennifer Edwards, of Springfield from voting. Greitens appointed Edwards after withdrawing Sumners' appointment.

Sumners was Greitens' second choice for the Southwest Missouri seat; he was named to the board after Melissa Gelner, of Springfield, was removed.

Circuit Judge Jon Beetem heard arguments on that case and a second one Thursday and declined to issue the requested restraining orders.

Shields noted Beetem still has those two cases before him, challenging previous actions involving Greitens' appointees, "so that remains in progress, and obviously we don't know the resolution of that. And obviously, that could have a determination on the outcome and legitimacy of one of the votes to the effect of removing the commissioner."

At a special meeting Nov. 21, called specifically to discuss the commissioner's future, Greitens appointee Claudia Oate Greim, of Kansas City, voted against firing Vandeven. She then resigned from the board Thursday, allowing the governor to name Teerman as her successor in time for Friday's meeting.

Greitens' Friday statement after the board vote said he supports public education.

"We need to help students succeed," he said.

But Shields, of St. Joseph, and fellow board members Michael Jones, of St. Louis, and Victor Lenz, of St. Louis County, all said the state has been doing that.

"I think we have made tremendous strides in moving education in this state forward," Shields told reporters, followed by applause from the education leaders and Elementary and Secondary Education Department staff members attending the news conference.

"We were able to move the Normandy School District from unaccredited status to provisionally accredited status — that was a tremendous step forward," Shields said.

"And for the first time in as long as I can remember — 1993 or 94 — there are no unaccredited school districts in this state."

Vandeven said reporters and the public should focus more on the Normandy School story than on her firing.

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens' effort to oust the state's education commissioner finally succeeded Friday, after a state Board of Education member appointed by the Republican a day earlier cast the deciding vote.

The board voted 5-3 to remove Margie Vandeven as education commissioner. The vote came at a board meeting held a day after Greitens appointed Eric Teeman, a Raytown businessman and former alderman, following Thursday's resignation of Claudia Onate Greim. Teeman joined four other Greitens appointees in voting to remove Vandeven, who was in the job for nearly three years.

Greim was appointed by Greitens, but when the state board voted on Vandeven's future last week, Greim broke ranks with Greitens' other appointees and voted to keep Vandeven, resulting in a 4-4 deadlock.

In seeking Vandeven's removal, Greitens -- a vocal supporter of charter schools and other school-choice policies -- has not cited any specific actions she took, but has asserted more generally that Missouri's schools need to improve. He particularly has contrasted Missouri's low rankings nationally when it comes to teacher pay with the "big bucks" paid to school administrator, but those salary decisions are made by local school boards.

"Today, kids, teachers, and families won. The State Board of Education voted for new leadership for our school system," Greitens said in a statement. "That's a major step in the right direction as we work to improve public education in Missouri."

The three board members who voted against removing Vandeven said the state has been moving in the right direction on behalf of children. Vandeven, who earned $194,000 annually, agreed.

"Schools are stronger," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Political forces are eclipsing educational decisions."

The Legislature's two most powerful Democrats released statements accusing Greitens of stacking a board that is supposed to be independent.

"The removal of Dr. Vandeven is completely without merit and anyone who cares about Missouri's schools should be outraged," Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh said.

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty called the ouster "the worst abuse of political power by a Missouri governor in living memory."

"Commissioner Vandeven is a respected and effective educator and did not deserve this treatment, especially considering that the governor still hasn't provided a legitimate reason -- or any reason -- for her removal," Beatty said.

After dismissing Vandeven, the Board of Education voted 7-1 to make Deputy Commissioner Roger Dorson the interim education commissioner until the board can pick a permanent replacement.

The board has not said who it intends to choose, but Greitens appears to want to hire someone who supports school-choice policies.

In August, the Post-Dispatch reported that Greitens used campaign funds to fly Atlanta charter school expert Kenneth Zeff to Jefferson City. Greitens' gubernatorial campaign received at least $370,000 from prominent school-choice proponents last year, including $275,000 from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and $40,000 from Betsy and Richard DeVos. Betsy DeVos later was appointed as education secretary by President Donald Trump.

Missouri School Board Association Executive Director Melissa Randol said in a written statement that the state board's action "has made the commissioner of education a political appointee of the Governor."

Vandeven began her term as commissioner in January 2015 under Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. She is a Missouri native who began her education career as a teacher in the St. Louis suburb of O'Fallon in 1990.

Greitens noted that Missouri fell from 18th to 28th in fourth-grade reading and from 23rd to 32nd in eighth-grade math from 2009 to 2015. Most of that time was before Vandeven took over.

The governor also said $64 million was added to the state budget for public schools this year.

"The bureaucrats took your money," Greitens said. "Teachers didn't get a raise. Juniors in high school had the ACT cut. The bureaucrats had their chance. They failed our kids."

Missouri National Education Association President Charles E. Smith said in a statement that Greitens' "top-down approach runs contrary to the spirit of our constitution, turning students, teachers, and our local schools into political props. The confusion and chaos the governor has created does nothing to help students achieve."