JEFFERSON CITY • A Cole County judge denied two legal attempts Thursday to put the brakes on Gov. Eric Greitens’ effort to remove Missouri’s top school official.
Circuit Judge Jon Beetem’s decision came just hours after one of the governor’s newest appointees to the state school board resigned, saying she was unhappy with the pressure being applied by the political newcomer to oust state school Commissioner Margie Vandeven.
Greitens could move quickly to replace Claudia Greim, a Kansas City attorney who was named to the board in August. The board is scheduled to convene at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Jefferson City.
In a statement, Greitens' spokesman Parker Briden called the decision a win for students and teachers.
"It affirms the governor’s constitutional authority to make appointments as Missouri’s chief executive. Now we need to focus on the governor's priorities: raise teacher pay, support public schools, and help students succeed," Briden said.
Beetem’s decision, released at 9 p.m. Thursday, involved two lawsuits filed in response to actions by the state board and Greitens when it comes to Vandeven’s future.
Springfield teacher Laurie Sullivan alleged the eight-member school board violated the Missouri Sunshine Law by discussing in a closed meeting who should be allowed to vote on the question of firing Vandeven.
In the second lawsuit, former state school board member Tim Sumners of Joplin asked whether Greitens broke the law by removing Sumners from the board after he decided he wouldn’t support Vandeven’s ouster.
Beetem said neither were worthy of him issuing a temporary restraining order that would immediately affect Friday’s meeting.
Greitens has spent the past five months installing new members on the board in order to gain a majority of appointees. He has since replaced two of his appointees – Sumners and Melissa Gelner – after they voiced objections to his goal of removing Vandeven. Greitens then appointed Springfield resident Jennifer Edwards to the post and she voted on Vandeven's fate during a meeting last week.
Sumners’ suit says Greitens’ move to replace him on the eight-member board failed to follow state law, which requires a hearing.
Both cases are aimed at stopping Greitens from attaining the five votes needed to remove Vandeven, who has held the $194,000 per year job as commissioner since 2015.
In the Sullivan case, attorney Duane Martin told Beetem that the board acted illegally by allowing Edwards to cast a vote during a closed meeting that had been called to act on personnel issues.
“They decided official business, public business, at that closed meeting,” Martin argued.
Assistant Attorney General Ryan Bangert disagreed, saying allowing barring Sumners and Gelner from voting was not an official act of the board.
“That is not a violation of the Sunshine Law,” Bangert said.
Greims’ hasty departure came after she was the lone appointee of the governor who voted to keep Vandeven during the Nov. 21 meeting. The vote failed 4-4, torpedoing the governor's plan.
In a resignation letter to Greitens dated Thursday, Greim wrote:
"As I have made clear throughout my two-month service, when and how change in leadership at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should occur require thoughtful and independent study. I regret that I cannot get comfortable with the current process by which this is taking place."
Greim’s departure and Beetem’s decision comes against the backdrop of another potential hurdle for Greitens. If no action on Vandeven is taken by the board before the end of the year, the Missouri Senate will begin hearings on whether to confirm the new members in January.
Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, predicted the new members would have a tough time winning Senate approval.
Greitens has not specifically addressed why he is seeking to oust Vandeven.
But in August, the Post-Dispatch reported that the governor dipped into his campaign fund to fly Atlanta charter school expert Kenneth Zeff to Jefferson City.