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Government & Politics

Missouri education leader ousted after last-minute appointment to state ed board

Gov. Eric Greitens spent months trying to put enough like-minded people on the Missouri Board of Education to fulfill his goal of ousting Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven.

On Friday, he finally got his wish.

Newly appointed board member Eric Teeman, a former Raytown alderman whose appointment was announced just before Friday’s education board meeting, helped secure the 5-3 vote needed to remove Vandeven.

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After the closed-session vote, Greitens called the board’s action a win for kids, teachers and families.

“We need to: raise teacher pay, support public schools, and help students succeed,” the governor said in a statement. “We need to make sure that the money Missourians spend on schools gets out of the bureaucracy — and into the classroom.”

Reached by phone, Teeman said he would not comment about his vote.

“The governor has sent a press release,” Teeman said. “I’ve gotten nothing to say at this point in time.”

The board’s decision was immediately scorned by educators and Democratic lawmakers.

“The governor’s top-down approach runs contrary to the spirit of our constitution, turning students, teachers and our local schools into political props,” Charles Smith, president of the Missouri National Education Association, said in a statement. “The confusion and chaos the governor has created does nothing to help students achieve.”

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat, said Vandeven’s firing was “the worst abuse of political power by a Missouri governor in living memory. ... 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.”

At a news conference announcing her removal, Vandeven said she was saddened both to leave her position and by the politicization of education. She received a standing ovation from those gathered to hear the announcement.

But board member Eddy Justice, who voted for Vandeven’s removal, said in a statement that a new direction for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is crucial to tackle education challenges, such as boosting inadequate reading proficiency levels.

“That is a product of an educational bureaucracy that is in dire need of a cultural change,” Justice said. “The best way to change culture is to start at the top.”

He said he looked forward to the upcoming search for a leader who would bring “pragmatism” to the education department. Deputy Commissioner Roger Dorson will serve as interim education commissioner.

“I feel completely justified in our action today and thrilled for the potential that our Missouri students can now realize,” Justice said.

Greitens reportedly wants to replace Vandeven with a proponent of charter school expansion.

This summer, the governor’s campaign paid for charter school advocate Kenneth Zeff of Georgia to travel to Missouri, sparking speculation that he’s in line to take the job.

Zeff previously was chief operations officer for a charter school management organization serving students in Los Angeles and New York. He and Greitens were White House fellows in 2005-2006 under then-President George W. Bush.

Greitens had pledged during his campaign for governor in 2016 to support charter school expansion and education savings accounts. During the campaign, he accepted more than $370,000 from some of the country’s top school-choice proponents, including Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. education secretary.

“Today’s vote is another example of Eric Greitens selling out Missouri to satisfy his Washington D.C. donors,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat and member of the Senate education committee.

With Teeman’s appointment, Greitens has now named 10 people to the eight-member board of education: One was ineligible and withdrew; one refused the appointment; two were withdrawn by the governor; one resigned; and five are now on the board.

Teeman was elected to the Raytown Board of Aldermen in April 2015 and stepped down last month mid-term. A Raytown South High School graduate, he received a liberal arts degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an MBA from the Keller Graduate School, according to his city bio. He is the owner of Visiting Angels, a senior-care business.

Teeman replaced Claudia Onate Greim on the state board. She resigned Thursday.

In her resignation letter, Greim said she left the state board because she was uncomfortable with the way the process to fill the board and oust Vandeven was playing out. Greim said a change of leadership requires thoughtful and independent study.

Other appointees expressed qualms about ousting Vandeven, leading Greitens to appoint three people to the seat currently held by Springfield resident Jennifer Edwards since August.

First, he appointed Melissa Gelner of Springfield. He removed her from the board in September. She later voiced concerns about the plan to oust Vandeven.

In October, Greitens appointed John T. Sumners of Joplin. Greitens rescinded that appointment on Nov. 20, after Sumners said he would not vote to fire Vandeven.

The next day, in a last-minute effort to tilt the board’s vote, the governor appointed Edwards to replace Sumners, just before the board’s meeting began.

On Thursday night, a Cole County circuit judge ruled against an effort by Sumners to keep his seat on the board.

Sumners had argued the governor didn’t follow state laws to remove him and asked Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem to block Edwards from voting on the board. But Beetem ruled against the temporary restraining order Sumners asked for, saying it’s up to the state attorney general, a prosecutor or circuit attorney to seek Edwards’ removal from the board.

A second lawsuit, filed last week by a Springfield teacher, also was denied. That lawsuit accused the state board of violating Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

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