JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri’s top educator has been fired in what was a drawn-out but ultimately successful political move by Gov. Eric Greitens.
Five people whom Greitens appointed to the Missouri Board of Education in the past four months — including one board member appointed just Thursday — voted to remove Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven. The vote was 5-3.
The state board then voted 7-1 to appoint Deputy Commissioner Roger Dorson as interim education commissioner until it finds a new school leader.
Greitens, a Republican, praised the board’s move, saying in a statement that, “Today, kids, teachers, and families won.” The governor said he wanted to “raise teacher pay, support public schools, and help students succeed.” He said he thought too much public school money went to school administrators who earned six-figure salaries rather than to teachers or into classrooms.
The five appointees of Greitens declined to comment on their votes after the closed-door meeting.
Among them was new appointee Eric Teeman, who was sworn in just minutes before the meeting to replace board member Claudia Greim, who quit Thursday over the pressure Greitens was using to sack Vandeven.
Greim had been the lone new appointee to vote against firing Vandeven at a meeting last week.
Board members who opposed Vandeven’s ouster scoffed at Greitens’ claims about administrator salaries.
Board President Charlie Shields, a former Republican state senator, said pitting teacher pay against administrator pay was a political trick designed to disrupt a school system.
“It never has a positive outcome,” Shields said.
Board member Mike Jones, who was appointed by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said the governor’s claims were “untethered from reality.” And board member Victor Lenz, also a Nixon appointee, called the governor’s claims “a joke.”
All three board members decried the intense political maneuvering by Greitens to stack the board and remove Vandeven, saying the state’s education professionals had been working together on behalf of the 900,000-plus public school children.
“I believe strongly that we are heading in the right direction,” Shields said.
Vandeven, too, said she believed she was leaving her $194,000-per-year job with the office in “good shape.”
“Schools are stronger,” she said.
But, she added, “Political forces are eclipsing educational decisions.”
Those political forces are not going to go away soon.
The five new members still must be confirmed by the Senate beginning in January. Senators opposed to Greitens’ push to fire Vandeven are expected to contest those appointees.
“The removal of Dr. Vandeven is completely without merit, and anyone who cares about Missouri’s schools should be outraged,” said Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors. “Dr. Vandeven challenged the status quo and got real results for Missouri students, teachers and taxpayers. It’s a shame to see her ousted by the governor in a political power grab.”
There also is a legal battle underway over one of the seats after Greitens replaced two members from southwestern Missouri who had expressed concern about the pressure they were under to act on Vandeven.
The outcome of the legal fight could send the board into further chaos, particularly if any of Greitens’ nominees are rejected by the Senate.
The board’s decision drew immediate criticism from public school leaders across the state who called it a political invasion into education.
“We are extremely disappointed with the decision by the State Board today,” Missouri School Boards’ Association Executive Director Melissa Randol said in a statement. “The State Board today effectively has made the commissioner of education a political appointee of the governor. This is a sad day for Missouri’s public schools and the students they serve.”
“The governor’s 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,” Missouri National Education Association President Charles Smith said in a statement.
Vandeven took the helm of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in January 2015.
She helped oversee the improvement and eventual accreditation upgrades for two local districts, St. Louis and Riverview Gardens, that had long struggled in academics and finances. The state education department also debuted Missouri’s first rating system for teaching colleges and universities under Vandeven’s leadership.
Vandeven was also credited for helping lead the development of a new Missouri school accountability system, one that would take into account more than just school outcomes, but also aspects such as district and board leadership and school climate.
Greitens has not said who he wants in the top post. But, in August, he spent $1,500 of his campaign money to fly in an Atlanta charter school expert for a visit to mid-Missouri.
The board has not outlined how it will fill Vandeven’s vacancy, but Shields said there would probably be a national search.
Shields said Greitens needed to outline his position on education reform if he wanted to succeed.
“Communication is the key to this thing,” Shields said. “If you don’t do that, you won’t move education forward.”