Missouri promotes education department assistant commissioner to the agency's top role

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KANSAS CITY, Missouri — A new Missouri education commissioner has been chosen to replace a leader who faced frequent criticism while dealing with struggling districts, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced Wednesday.

The State Board of Education decided Tuesday night to promote deputy commissioner Margaret Vandeven to the state's top education leadership role after interviewing five finalists. Vandeven replaces Chris Nicastro, who announced in September that she was resigning at the end of the year. Despite criticism that intensified in the past year, Nicastro has said no one asked her to retire other than her husband.

One issue for Nicastro was an August auditor's report that found the department's process for seeking bids from consultants to study a possible overhaul of the Kansas City school district was biased and included potential conflicts of interest. Another controversy arose last year, when public teachers' groups criticized Nicastro after records showed she provided ballot-wording advice to a group pushing an initiative that would require teacher evaluations to be based largely on student performance data.

Some state lawmakers have been upset about the way the department has handled unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area, particularly its takeover of the Normandy district and its implementation of a law requiring unaccredited districts to pay for students wishing to transfer to other nearby schools. Other lawmakers have opposed the agency's implementation of the Common Core educational standards. They passed a measure this year creating task forces of parents and educators to come up with new standards.

Vandeven said in a written statement that she was "committed to and focused on doing what's right for the children of Missouri."

Vandeven has 24 years of education experience and has spent the last nine years at DESE. She served most recently as the deputy commissioner for the division of learning services, coordinating the work of the seven assistant commissioners. She previously worked as an English language arts teacher and administrator in private schools in Missouri and Maryland.

Gov. Jay Nixon congratulated Vandeven in a written statement and said he looked forward to working with her, educators, school leaders and lawmakers "as we move forward toward our shared goal of continuing to improve the quality of education for students in every community."

The other finalists were former Rockwood and Wentzville Superintendent Terry Adams, Branson Superintendent Douglas Hayter, Joplin Superintendent Charles Huff and interim Mehlville School District Superintendent Norman Ridder.

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