Four days after being fired as Missouri’s education commissioner, Margie Vandeven isn’t losing sleep over her future.
She is worried, however, about what the firing means for the political independence of the state Board of Education and the job of the commissioner, who leads the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and oversees an annual budget of nearly $6 billion.
“I, personally, will be all right,” she told the News-Leader. “The emotional side of it is just the bigger picture of what is happening to education in Missouri.”
The state board’s first attempt to fire Vandeven stalled Nov. 21 when it ended in a 4-4 split. In a 5-3 vote Friday, after an 11th-hour change on the board, she was fired without explanation.
“This announcement wasn’t much of a surprise. People have been talking about it for a couple of weeks,” she said. “We have been preparing for the fact that an agency has to be stronger than one person.”
The firing came amid unprecedented turnover on the state board. Under the Missouri Constitution, there are strict rules for membership – aimed at political independence. For example, there can only be one member from each county or geographic region and no more than four members from the same political party.
Since July 31, Gov. Eric Greitens has appointed 10 people to the board, including four to represent southwest Missouri. Of the 10, two declined their appointments, one resigned amid pressure to support the firing and two were booted after alleging pressure from the governor’s office to quickly fire Vandeven.
The five board members appointed by Greitens, including one sworn in minutes before the Friday meeting, wanted Vandeven out. The other three, all appointed by former Gov. Jay Nixon, wanted her to stay.
Turnover was happening so quickly that Vandeven said she had not “met one of the new board members” and only briefly spent time with two others during a board orientation the day before the 5-3 vote.
“As far as developing a relationship, we just haven’t had time,” she said. “That was one of the things that was on my plans, to have a board retreat once the board members were all named and in place.”
The last few months were starkly different from the rest of her tenure.
“I had the fortune of working with a very effective eight-member board through my three years as commissioner,” she said. “Right now, there is just significant transition.”
Working with governors
The former English teacher spent nine years working for DESE, including a stint as the deputy commissioner, before she beat out more than 40 applicants as the unanimous choice for the state’s top K-12 education job.
Vandeven said by the time she became commissioner, the state education department had developed strong avenues of communication with Nixon’s office. He appointed a liaison to work directly with education institutions.
“I was able to walk in and I had weekly meetings with one of his advisers. We talked about the direction, about what was happening,” she said. “We provided updates, from both sides, and there was a mutual respect of the roles of each entity.”
She said the relationship with Greitens’ office was limited from the beginning, noting “clearly, you can see where we are.”
“I didn’t have an identified person to work with specific issues on. I participated in cabinet meetings, but we didn’t sit down and talk about education policy and what the governor’s mission was for education,” she said. “We hadn’t gotten to that point yet. And I believe now he was waiting.”
Doug Hayter, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, applauded how Vandeven handled the exit.
“She has been a true leader and very classy about this situation,” said Hayter, former superintendent in Branson and Logan-Rogersville. “From the start, she has made it about the kids and the independence of the board.”
Vandeven said she was “ready and willing to work with the Greitens administration” and there was never any falling out or refusal, on her part, to be a team player. State board members have, in recent weeks, accused the governor of keeping members appointed by Nixon in the dark regarding his plans.
She said if Greitens had concerns about how she was running DESE, he never shared them.
“I participated in large cabinet meetings but never had conversations specific to his vision for education nor my performance as a commissioner,” she said.
Vandeven, who worked in public and private schools before joining DESE, said she “fell in love with the work” after seeing how state-level policy impacted what happened in the classroom.
She took the helm shortly after the launch of the department’s “Top 10 by ’20” initiative, which sought to expand early learning options, place quality teachers in each classroom and ensure students graduate high school ready for success in college or careers. “I was really committed to those goals.”
She has been widely credited with improving the relationship between DESE and school districts and providing more support to educators.
Gerry Lee, president of the Springfield school board, said her collaborative nature was appreciated.
“The thing Margie did best was bring people together and bring stakeholders together to determine the best way to move forward for all students,” he said.
Vandeven said she tried to build teamwork at DESE and make it a better place to work and to keep a tight rein on state dollars.
Looking back, she is most proud of the way districts have embraced different teaching and learning strategies – from hands-on learning, project-based instruction and career exploration – as ways to make sure students graduate with the necessary skills.
“Real change is only possible when the conditions are there to support it,” she said. “So, that was my charge out the gate – how do we work better together. What I did, day one, was bring people together and say ‘I’m here to listen, to seek to understand’ and that is how I operated.”
Facing the future
As the effort to remove Vandeven became apparent, the Missouri education community rallied.
Superintendents, parents, teachers, school board members – and the state’s largest and most influential education-related groups – raised questions about the motivation behind the rapid turnover of the state board.
“It’s troubling the way this process has occurred,” Lee said. “There are issues out there that have to be resolved, from a legal standpoint … It should concern us all and it’s still unfolding.”
Two lawsuits were filed, one challenging a member’s removal from the board. The other accused the board of violating the Sunshine Law by deciding in closed session, not in public, which board members would vote on Vandeven’s employment.
Educators repeatedly invited Greitens to visit public schools to see the innovation that was happening before suggesting any sweeping changes.They also asked the reason behind Vandeven’s removal.
“A lot of people came to my defense, but it was really about support for public education. That was very powerful,” she said. “So, while it’s been hard to go through, it’s been eye-opening about the importance of high-functioning public education in Missouri and what that really means to so many of our communities.”
Vandeven said early in her tenure as commissioner, a board member told her the job was similar to running a relay race.
“Your job is really to position the agency so when you pass the baton to the next, that it’s well-positioned so the next person can come in,” she said.
Vandeven, 49, admits she is sad she didn’t get to stay longer in the job but expressed a lot of faith in the DESE leadership team. “Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty so I want to make sure we don’t drop that baton.”
She does not yet know what the future holds, although she plans to remain in public education. “I’ve already been approached with a number of opportunities, and I’m going to take time to figure out my next step.”
Asked if she has any words of encouragement for her successor, Vandeven said: “The best advice I got was to listen.
“There is great complexity in this state, in education, a lot of these issues seem really easy to solve on paper and when we’re talking about the diversity that exists – not just in demographics but in school district and charter district makeup — really getting an understanding of that part will be critical for the new person.”
She added: “The work is complex. It is not for the weary. But, I would also say never underestimate the power of people working together for a common cause.”
(Story shared by the Springfield News-Leader. Read the original article here )