JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – After serving as the commissioner of the Missouri State Board of Education since 2015, Dr. Margie Vandeven has been removed from her role by a 5-3 vote. And for the first time in the state’s history, a commissioner of education has been fired.
“The goose was cooked before we ever sat down,” board member Mike Jones said. “We have forfeited our legitimacy as a board.”
“There was an opportunity to take advantage of everyone heading in the right direction, and we missed that opportunity today,” Shields said.
Jones, along with President Charlie Shields and Vice President O. Victor Lenz, were the only members of the board to cast votes in favor of keeping the commissioner in Friday’s closed session.
The five members appointed by Gov. Eric Greitens – Eddy Justice, John “Doug” Russell, Marvin “Sonny” Jungmeyer, Jennifer Edwards, and Eric Teeman of Raytown, who joined the board following the previous night’s announcement that Claudia Onate Greim had resigned – all voted to fire Commissioner Vandeven. None of them stayed after the closed session to answer questions from the media, while the other three joined Commissioner Vandeven to speak to members of the press and audience.
When a reporter asked President Shields and the other two members of the board if they were disappointed that their colleagues were not there to explain their vote and actions, the answer came from the crowd.
“We are,” a voice cried out.
Shields and the other two members lamented the departure of Vandeven, saying that before the last four or five months, the board had been one of the best to ever work together.
That sentiment, however, does not seem to be echoed by Gov. Greitens, who pushed for the ousting of the commissioner and withdrew several appointments that got cold feet about casting the vote to do so. Those withdrawals, and the board actions have both led to lawsuits being filed in the courts, to which Shields says it will be up to the courts to sort the issues out.
In a press release issued following the vote, Gov. Greitens proclaimed that “Today, kids come first.”
“Today, kids, teachers, and families won. The State Board of Education voted for new leadership for our school system,” he said. “That’s a major step in the right direction as we work to improve public education in Missouri.”
It’s never been made clear as to exactly what concerns the Governor had regarding Vandeven, and Vandeven confirmed to reporters that she has had no interaction with him in which they discussed education matters and her performance regarding them.
Following Shields’ announcement of the final vote, Vandeven spoke before members of the press and the audience, holding back tears as she told everyone that her time as commissioner was an opportunity she would cherish.
She said that she was saddened by the decision, but also by the politicization of education in Missouri.
“Political forces are eclipsing educational decisions.”
She said that she felt that she was leaving the office, however, in good shape, saying that schools are stronger now, but vowed to continue to work in the best interest of Missouri’s children.
“I didn’t come to Jefferson City to fight, but I will always fight for children and educators,” she said.
In her final statement, Vandeven asked that the story of the day not be her firing, but instead the accreditation of the Normandy School District, which has struggled to improve its academic performance over the years.
“Please let today’s story be about Normandy,” she said. “The stories are countless about how that region has worked together to support our children.”
Though the loss of Vandeven is a blow to many, she asked that the victory for Normandy be remembered. While she still held the role of commissioner, the vote passed, meaning that there is no longer any unaccredited schools in the state.
It’s also worth noting that in the past month, Vandeven was elected to the Board of Directors for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Now that she is no longer a commissioner, Vandeven confirmed that she would no longer be on the council, as she was elected because she was a leader of an education department.
While many have expressed disappointment, sadness, and even anger about Vandeven’s departure, Jones urged those present to stand up and fight. Both Jones and Lenz had been appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon and shared strong words concerning the governor. Jones said the governor’s claims about administrator salaries were “untethered from reality, while Lenz called it a joke.
Board member Mike Jones, who was appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon, said the governor’s claims are “untethered from reality.” And, board member Victor Lenz, also a Nixon appointee, called the governor’s claims “a joke.”
A number of state lawmakers have also expressed concerns about the Governor’s actions and his “stacking” of the board.
“The removal of Dr. Vandeven is completely without merit and anyone who cares about Missouri’s schools should be outraged,” Senate Democratic Leader Gina Walsh said. “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.”
“The unwarranted firing of the state education commissioner is the worst abuse of political power by a Missouri governor in living memory,” House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty said. “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. Given the governor’s bumbling incompetence in getting to this point, Missourians should be deeply concerned about the damage he is likely to inflict on public education.”
Sen. Gary Romine told members of the media following the prior vote that the Governor would have trouble getting any of his appointees confirmed by the Senate in the upcoming legislative session.
As for the Board’s next commissioner, Roger Dorson, deputy education commissioner, has been elected to serve as the interim commissioner by a 7-1 vote.
Many believe that Kenneth Zeff, a proponent of charter schools, is the intended next commissioner. Greitens’ campaign paid for Zeff to visit Missouri earlier this year, and Zeff and Greitens have ties to each other, having both served in the same class of White House fellows under former President George W. Bush.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.