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What’s happening at the state Education Board?

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Following an unprecedented restructuring, the Missouri Board of Education on Dec. 1 voted to remove Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven – and the move has inspired a lawsuit and outcry from administrators.

Since July, Gov. Eric Greitens has increased his influence by appointing five of the eight district board members charged with, among other things, appointing the education commissioner and setting policies for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Springfieldian Jennifer Edwards is among those appointed prior to the vote – replacing three other brief appointees, including two other local businesswomen.

By comparison, former Gov. Jay Nixon appointed seven members over the course of nine years, according to school associations, and never more than two in the same year. Vandeven’s short time as commissioner – less than three years – also is noteworthy, with the previous five leaders serving increasingly shorter periods from 24 years to five.

“We went into closed session and there was a motion to terminate the commissioner effective immediately,” said Mike Jones, board member from District 1, of the second consecutive meeting with a vote on the topic. “There was a brief discussion. … You weren’t convincing anybody. It wasn’t like anybody was listening.”

Jones was joined by Victor Lenz and board President Charles Shields in voting against the leadership change. All five votes in favor of the motion were cast by Greitens’ appointees: Eddy Justice, who joined in July; Doug Russell, in August; Sonny Jungmeyer, in November; Edwards, late last month; and Eric Teeman, who was appointed that day.

“Not only was there not a case – based on performance or character – to terminate the commissioner, but the manner in which it was done and is being done is detrimental to the overall governance process,” Jones said, noting Justice and Jungmeyer led the charge.

Outcry
The speed at which the board positions changed, the pressure that prospective appointees felt to fire Vandeven and the majority influence held by the new governor have made some uncomfortable and sparked a lawsuit.

Springfield Public Schools Superintendent John Jungmann expressed his concern immediately following the vote.

“Today’s actions do not represent how independent boards should function,” he said in a statement. “The work to shape our children’s futures through quality public education should not be politicized in such a divisive way, yet what we have experienced is unprecedented in our state’s history. I am appalled by the governor’s actions to stack the Missouri State Board of Education through the removal of members who refuse to vote the way he desires.”

Statewide educational organizations also have spoken out against the procedure.

“The constitution directs the state board to hire the commissioner – that is not a gubernatorial appointee,” Missouri School Boards’ Association Executive Director Melissa Randol told Springfield Business Journal on Dec. 5. “With the actions that resulted in the decision on Friday, we have essentially converted the commissioner from an employee of the state board to political appointee by the governor. That erodes the protections that the drafters of the constitution intended to put in place in 1945. That’s what we’re upset about. You don’t undo these things. You set a precedent.”

Another of Greitens’ appointments, Tim Sumners, of Joplin, is behind the lawsuit.

Sumners was tapped for a seat Oct. 27 and removed by Greitens on Nov. 20, a day before the initial vote to fire Vandeven. Sumners filed a lawsuit Nov. 28 in Cole County Circuit Court against Greitens and the other board members arguing that he had not been properly removed from the board and attempting to block Edwards from voting. A judge denied that initial request Nov. 30, but the suit continues. SBJ’s phone call to Jim Layton, Sumners’ attorney, was not returned by deadline.

SBJ’s attempt to interview Greitens was not successful. In addition, DESE Executive Assistant Robin Barbour sent interview requests on behalf of SBJ to all board members, but only Jones and Edwards responded.

According to Jones, another concern is the five new board members – now the majority – were nominated while the state legislature was not in session and were not yet confirmed by the Senate at the time of the vote.

“It clearly was done outside of the standard operating norms,” said Jones, who has about 30 years of political experience in St. Louis-area government. “I would say if not against the letter of the constitution, definitely against the spirit.”

Concerns of inaction
Local education advocate Edwards applied for a spot on the board and interviewed for the position in March. Although she had the opportunity to vote in favor of replacing the commissioner at her first two meetings, she said that was not her motivation for joining.

“My interest started with my advocacy for children with reading issues and dyslexia. I became frustrated when schools weren’t providing appropriate reading curricula and interventions that are helpful to children,” she said.

Edwards founded the state chapter of Decoding Dyslexia, a nonprofit that addresses the state legislature concerning reading issues, and serves as its volunteer president. The organization promoted and gained the passage of Missouri House of Representatives Bill 2379 in 2016.

“In the 2018-19 school year, all public schools will screen children for the traits and characteristics of dyslexia, in kindergarten through third grade, and then older children upon request,” Edwards said. “We also made recommendations for higher education courses that would inform pre-service teachers about the traits of dyslexia in coursework.”

Edwards said she also gained knowledge about the education system while on a legislative task force focusing on dyslexia.

“Through my advocacy work, I have been exposed to a lot of different issues in public schools and ideas that I thought might be areas of improvement, and also things that I think public schools do really well,” she said. “Overall, I’m a huge public school supporter.”

Greitens appointed Edwards to the board on Nov. 21, and she participated in a board meeting that same day, casting a failing vote to remove the commissioner.

“I am concerned proficiency rates in math and reading continue to decline from Missouri students,” she said, noting parents of dyslexic students complained Vandeven was unresponsive to their concerns. “I also am concerned that she has never shown leadership in providing clarity and appropriate interventions for children with learning issues, particularly dyslexia. … She has a legislative rep who attended all the meetings and reports back to her. I felt like she was aware of the testimony given by the parents and children in regards to their struggles, and she never offered any assistance or even an acknowledgement of troubles.”

Historic changeup
At the Dec. 1 board meeting, seven members voted to select DESE Deputy Commissioner Roger Dorson as interim commissioner – with Jones abstaining.

According to state law, each of the eight board members is installed for an eight-year term, so only one is replaced each year. But because of resignations and redistricting during the past 16 years, the average tenure of a member has been about six years – with the exception of Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. co-owner Peter Herschend, who served for 26 years. The governor has the option of leaving a member in place after the term is ended.

That eight-year cycle was disrupted and Greitens had the unusual opportunity to replace several members whose terms were ending. In July, he appointed Askinosie Chocolate LLC Chief Kinship Officer Melissa Gelner to replace Herschend, but Greitens withdrew her name on Sept. 14. Gelner declined to comment for this story.

Copy Products Inc. Chief Financial Officer Heidi Crane received a nod a few days later, but she quickly declined the appointment. She was followed by Sumners, who was ultimately replaced by Edwards.

Edwards said she and the other board members are being represented in the lawsuit by the state attorney general’s office.

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