JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – When former State Board of Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven was fired from her position through the use of a majority vote consisting of appointments to the board by Gov. Eric Greitens, the room was packed, with people lining the hallway outside.
But in Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Committee on Gubernatorial Appointments, the first in which one of those appointments was being heard, less than half the seats were filled.
The issue of the State Board of Education has been one of controversy for months, spanning to July of 2017 when the now-embattled governor appointed 10 different individuals to the board.
Two declined the appointment, while one resigned, saying he had been pressured to fire Vandeven. Two more were removed after saying they had also been pushed to remove the commissioner.
Fast forward to December and the board voted 5-3 to fire Vandeven, with the five deciding votes being those of Gov. Greitens’ appointees.
Since then, those five – Jennifer Edwards, Eddy Justice, Doug Russell, Marvin Jungmeyer and Eric Teeman – have been awaiting confirmation by the Senate. Greitens withdrew and reappointed the five in January in order to give more time for the Senate to evaluate them, but the move also put the board into limbo because individuals appointed during the session are not eligible to vote until they are confirmed. Without those five, the board lacks a quorum and cannot meet.
Justice, an insurance agent and Republican Party fundraiser from Poplar Bluff, appeared before the Senate committee on Wednesday, where he was questioned by several senators on several matters, from his position on charter schools and vouchers to his vote to oust Vandeven.
The chairman of the committee, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, led the questioning of Justice, who sat next to the senator sponsoring him, Sen. Doug Libla.
When asked by Richard if getting rid of Vandeven had been a requirement for his appointment, Justice replied that no conditions had been placed on him and that he had made his decision to fire Vandeven after meeting with her and assessing the culture of the department.
“I came to the independent conclusion that I believed there needed to be a culture change in the department, and the best place to start that change was at the top.”
He said that the “longer we waited to implement a culture change,” the more children would be left behind.
Speaking of his own opinions of educational issues, Justice told the committee that he does not support “a one-size-fits-all approach,” but believes in local control.
“The last thing I want to do is insert the state into those situations where it can be handled more efficiently at the local level.”
As for charter schools, he said he did not believe that the use of charter schools should be expanded, instead saying that they were tools that can be used, and that he felt the department has not held charter schools to “an appropriate level of accountability.”
Justice also told the commission about how he’s been trying to shield his family from the negative side of this whole process, saying that his business has been threatened and that he had purchased security measures for his yard.
The next step will be a vote by the Senate chamber on the appointment, which Richard said would happen next week.
However, several senators have spoken against the appointment of these five individuals, citing their actions as cause to be considered unfit.
Sen. Gary Romine has been outspoken about the appointments, stating that he would filibuster the appointees on the floor if he must. Speaking with the Missouri Times on Wednesday afternoon, Romine reaffirmed his position on a possible filibuster.
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.