JEFFERSON CITY – Gov. Eric Greitens' effort to oust the state's education commissioner finally succeeded Friday, after a state Board of Education member appointed by the Republican a day earlier cast the deciding vote.
The board voted 5-3 to remove Margie Vandeven as education commissioner. The vote came at a board meeting held a day after Greitens appointed Eric Teeman, a Raytown businessman and former alderman, following Thursday's resignation of Claudia Onate Greim. Teeman joined four other Greitens appointees in voting to remove Vandeven, who was in the job for nearly three years.
Greim was appointed by Greitens, but when the state board voted on Vandeven's future last week, Greim broke ranks with Greitens' other appointees and voted to keep Vandeven, resulting in a 4-4 deadlock.
In seeking Vandeven's removal, Greitens – a vocal supporter of charter schools and other school-choice policies – has not cited any specific actions she took, but has asserted more generally that Missouri's schools need to improve. He particularly has contrasted Missouri's low rankings nationally when it comes to teacher pay with the "big bucks" paid to school administrators, but those salary decisions are made by local school boards.
"Today, kids, teachers, and families won. The State Board of Education voted for new leadership for our school system," Greitens said in a statement. "That's a major step in the right direction as we work to improve public education in Missouri."
The three board members who voted against removing Vandeven said the state has been moving in the right direction on behalf of children. Vandeven, who earned $194,000 annually, agreed.
"Schools are stronger," she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Political forces are eclipsing educational decisions."
The Legislature's two most powerful Democrats released statements accusing Greitens of stacking a board that is supposed to be independent.
"The removal of Dr. Vandeven is completely without merit and anyone who cares about Missouri's schools should be outraged," Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh said.
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty called the ouster "the worst abuse of political power by a Missouri governor in living memory."
"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," Beatty said.
After dismissing Vandeven, the Board of Education voted 7-1 to make Deputy Commissioner Roger Dorson the interim education commissioner until the board can pick a permanent replacement.
The board has not said who it intends to choose, but Greitens appears to want to hire someone who supports school-choice policies.
In August, the Post-Dispatch reported that Greitens used campaign funds to fly Atlanta charter school expert Kenneth Zeff to Jefferson City. Greitens' gubernatorial campaign received at least $370,000 from prominent school-choice proponents last year, including $275,000 from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and $40,000 from Betsy and Richard DeVos. Betsy DeVos later was appointed as education secretary by President Donald Trump.
Several local school leaders shared their disapproval of Vandeven's ouster.
Independence's Dale Herl, who was among many dozens of superintendents who traveled to Jefferson City a couple weeks ago in support of Vandeven, said “We're all very upset.”
“She was a tremendous commissioner – good for the state and good for the kids,” he said, “I care deeply about our students and teachers and a disappointed that the governor abused his power and turned our State Board of Education into a political body to push his agenda.”
Herl said he views Vandeven's firing as a step in an attempt by Greitens to launch an agenda of charter schools throughout the state, “Which is not what is best for Missouri children.”
Blue Springs Superintendent Jim Finley thanked Vandeven's “tireless efforts” to create better educational opportunities for students throughout the state.
“That is our ongoing focus in the Blue Springs School District,” he said, “and a finish line in that regard does not exist.”
Fort Osage Superintendent Jason Snodgrass said he was “extremely troubled” about the board's decision and that Vandeven has done a “tremendous job” supporting the state's students.
“She has worked cooperatively with Missouri educators to enhance our schools during her tenure at DESE,” he said. “Although there is currently uncertainties with the State Board of Education, we will continue to work together to meet the needs of our Fort Osage students.”
Missouri School Boards' Association Executive Director Melissa Randol said in a written statement that the state board's action "has made the commissioner of education a political appointee of the Governor."
Vandeven began her term as commissioner in January 2015 under Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. She is a Missouri native who began her education career as a teacher in the St. Louis suburb of O'Fallon in 1990.
Greitens noted that Missouri fell from 18th to 28th in fourth-grade reading and from 23rd to 32nd in eighth-grade math from 2009 to 2015. Most of that time was before Vandeven took over.
The governor also said $64 million was added to the state budget for public schools this year.
"The bureaucrats took your money," Greitens said. "Teachers didn't get a raise. Juniors in high school had the ACT cut. The bureaucrats had their chance. They failed our kids."
Missouri National Education Association President Charles E. Smith said in a statement that Greitens' "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."
-- Examiner reporter Mike Genet contributed to this article.