The Missouri State Board of Education's move to fire education commissioner Margie Vandeven on Friday, and Gov. Eric Greitens' repeated appointments and removals from the board, drew strong criticism from Southwest Missouri.
More than a dozen area school district superintendents and 16 staff members from Carl Junction Schools had publicly invited the governor to visit their schools and pleaded with him to pause apparent efforts to staff the state board with members who were willing to vote to oust Vandeven.
Greitens had already appointed four members of the board when in October he selected Joplin chaplain Tim Sumners. After Sumners publicly expressed support for Vandeven, his appointment was rescinded. This week, another Greitens appointee, who voted against firing Vandeven last week, resigned and was replaced minutes before Friday's meeting.
All gubernatorial appointments to the Board of Education must be approved by the state Senate, though they're allowed to attend meetings and vote before being confirmed.
Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said he was not consulted before Sumners was appointed to the board and called it "the height of disrespect to the sitting senator" not to give them input on an appointment from their district.
Richard said he believes Greitens has the legal authority to remove his appointments at any time, but that he isn't comfortable with the governor's process.
"I’m very sensitive about any branch of government intruding on another one," he said. "I’m sensitive about executive branches and judicial branches expanding their authority on the legislative branch, and this is a case I believe it happened."
Richard said the state's education, transportation and conservation departments are supposed to operate "quasi-independently," and "continually pulling people off to get to a conclusion" undermine's the Senate's authority.
Webb City Superintendent Anthony Rossetti called Friday "a disappointing day for the kids of Missouri and public education as a whole.
"I think the process that has been circumvented really delegitimizes the Board of Education and the commissioner," he said. "Right now, we don’t really have any good direction. I dare to say it’s somewhat chaotic. You’re kind of scratching your head. This is not how this is supposed to work."
Melissa Randol, executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association, also expressed disappointment at the board's action in a written statement.
"The State Board today effectively has made the commissioner of education a political appointee of the governor," she said. "This is a sad day for Missouri’s public schools and the students they serve. We will continue to pursue efforts to ensure the State Board of Education remains independent and exercises its appropriate constitutional authority."
Asked to directly address those criticisms, a Greitens spokesperson referred the Globe to a statement the governor's office released Friday.
"The State Board of Education voted for new leadership for our school system," the statement said. "That's a major step in the right direction as we work to improve public education in Missouri. We need to: raise teacher pay, support public schools, and help students succeed. We need to make sure that the money Missourians spend on schools gets out of the bureaucracy — and into the classroom."
Rossetti and Richard both pointed out that factors such as teacher pay and schools' "bureaucracy" are under the control of local districts and not the state's education commissioner.
"Maybe its because I’m not necessarily a politician by trade," Rossetti said, "But if you are unhappy with someone’s performance, the appropriate thing to do is explain to them what the expectation is, give them time to change it, and then if you feel after evaluating they are still not meeting expectations, then the process to remove them would be in place. The unethical process is that people that are put on that board are making decisions have no idea what the demands are."
Richard said he considers the board's action legitimate from a legal perspective because he believes the governor has the authority to make and rescind appointments at any time, but he said the Senate is under no obligation to approve his appointments. Richard is the chair of the Senate's gubernatorial appointments committee.
"The process is you have a hearing or don’t have a hearing," he said. "You can see if the senator in that district will sponsor that person, and that will either happen or not happen. If you have a hearing, the person will either be voted out or not voted out. If it’s not voted out, that appointment languishes.
"I’ll have my final say, we’ll see what I’ll do in January. I’m sure it’ll be worth waiting for," he added.
Friday's vote by the Missouri State Board of Education to fire Commissioner Margie Vandeven was 5-3 in favor.