- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri has selected a new education commissioner who is pledging to build relationships and focus on students as the department moves on from the resignation of a leader who faced frequent criticism while dealing with struggling districts.

The State Board of Education promoted deputy commissioner Margaret Vandeven to the state’s top education leadership role, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced Wednesday.

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.

Vandeven, asked about taking over for a sometimes-controversial figure, said her focus would be on “building the relationships with educators in our state and really keeping the focus on children.” Several issues will immediately confront her, including months of racial unrest in Ferguson after a white officer in the St. Louis suburb shot and killed a black 18-year-old. Vandeven said the situation “has certainly surfaced critical issues and concerns for every district in our state.”

She also will face tensions about whether the state should continue teaching based on the national standards in the Common Core. Lawmakers passed a bill last session to review Common Core standards. Vandeven said she believes that “the people in Missouri really want a lot of the same things” and “just need to be able to find that common ground and move forward.”

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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