A member of the State Board of Education said he received “absolutely zero pressure” from the governor’s office to fire Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven.
Eddy Justice, a Republican board member, was appointed by Gov. Eric Greitens in July 2017. He is one of the 10 people nominated by Greitens to the 8-member board since this summer. Only five of those nominees — including Justice — sit on the board, and all five voted to remove Vandeven last week.
Two former nominees to the board, Melissa Gelner and John Sumners, have both said the governor withdrew their appointments because they would not go along with his efforts to oust the commissioner. A third, Claudia Onate Greim, resigned because she was not comfortable with the change in leadership, she said.
Justice cited low reading proficiency statistics across the state for why he voted to fire Vandeven. And while those numbers are nothing new compared to the reading proficiency levels prior to Vandeven’s tenure — fewer than 40 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders in Missouri are proficient in reading, according to 2015 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress — Justice said the long-term status quo is why a new commissioner is needed.
“I believe that the culture of the education bureaucracy in the state of Missouri needs to change,” Justice said. “I believe we had to start from scratch and look for somebody to lead the department that is focused on improving the outcomes of our system.”
Many in the education community have expressed concerns over new appointees voting to remove Vandeven after just several months on the board. The newest member was both nominated and sworn in the morning of the vote.
“Well obviously, four months — if that were the only amount of time that I had spent focusing on education — would be premature,” Justice said. “But I have been very involved in observing education for a long time now, and I think there is a lot of information that’s available, both on the local level and on the state level from (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), to make educated decisions that affect Missouri’s education.”
The board will convene Dec. 14 to discuss the search process for a new commissioner. Roger Dorson, a deputy commissioner in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is currently the interim commissioner of education.
Justice said he has not had any information or communication from anyone in the governor’s office “regarding any specific candidate, or necessarily the kind of candidate that we’re looking for in this process.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Greitens may favor Kenneth Zeff, an Atlanta school administrator, as a candidate. Greitens paid for Zeff, who has a background in charter schools, to visit Missouri visit this summer. Justice, though, said he has only heard the name from other members of the press.
”I have never met the man, and nobody in the governor’s office has ever brought that name up to me,” Justice said.