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Judge denies preliminary injunction in state Board of Education case

Judge denies preliminary injunction in state Board of Education case

February 20th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Missouri News

Flags flutter in strong winds Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, at the Cole County Courthouse in Jefferson City.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

For the second time in three months, a Cole County judge has blocked Springfield teacher Laurie Sullivan's request for a preliminary injunction blocking Missouri's State Board of Education from firing now-former Commissioner Margie Vandeven.

Sullivan's lawsuit argued the board violated the Sunshine Law last year, when it scheduled two closed meetings and, on Dec. 1, voted to terminate Vandeven.

Senior Judge Richard Callahan on Tuesday denied Sullivan's request for a preliminary injunction that would have overturned the Dec. 1 decision.

In a five-page ruling, Callahan said Sullivan "did not demonstrate she is likely to succeed on the merits, as she did not establish the Board clearly violated the Sunshine Law with respect to its Nov. 21st or Dec. 1st meetings."

Circuit Judge Jon Beetem on Nov. 30 had ruled Sullivan didn't have standing to sue because she wasn't directly affected by the State Board's actions.

Columbia attorney Duane Martin filed Sullivan's lawsuit Nov. 28, originally seeking a restraining order to block any board vote on Vandeven's future during or after the Dec. 1 meeting.

He told the News Tribune on Tuesday he still is confident of proving his case.

"If one compares the facts acknowledged in the court's order with the plain language of the Sunshine Law," Martin explained, "it is clear the State Board violated the law by failing to provide required notice of the meeting and discussing public business, as that term is defined by law, in a closed session of the Board."

After Beetem allowed the Dec. 1 meeting to proceed, Martin began taking depositions of board members and other Department of Elementary and Secondary Education employees.

Part of the public debate about Vandeven's job is a complaint that Gov. Eric Greitens worked to stack the State Board with members who would fire Vandeven, even though most school-related groups around the state supported her.

After her dismissal on Dec. 1, the governor said the change was a victory for the state's "kids, teachers and families," adding that new education department leadership is "a major step in the right direction as we work to improve public education in Missouri."

Based on deposition comments from Eddy Justice of Poplar Bluff — one of the people Greitens named to the board last year — Martin filed an amended lawsuit with updated arguments for Sunshine Law violations.

Martin also asked for a change of judge, and the case was transferred to Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Patricia Joyce — who had a hearing Jan. 8 on the state's motion to dismiss the case.

Joyce denied that motion, saying: "I think this needs more discussion."

The state asked for another change of judge, and the Supreme Court appointed Callahan to hear the case.

He presided over a six-hour hearing last week on Martin's motion for a preliminary injunction that, if granted, would have erased both the Nov. 21 and Dec. 1 State Board meetings.

Had Callahan granted the motion, it would have erased the vote to fire Vandeven and restored her to her job.

Callahan wrote: "Because the requested injunction is not to maintain the current status quo but to change it back to the status as it existed before the Dec. 1st vote, the threat of harm from the issuance of an injunction is just as great as the threat of harm from the non-issuance.

"For example, were this Court to grant the requested relief, there is no evidence Commissioner Vandeven would actually return to the Commissioner position absent some assurance that a new Board would not immediately vote to remove her again. Consequently, depending on the composition of the new State Board of Education, the injunction would just as likely lead to new chaos as not."

Martin told the News Tribune he was disappointed in Callahan's ruling but "understood the Court was reluctant to enter a preliminary injunction without knowing whether Commissioner Vandeven would return to her previously held position."

Callahan also found that Sullivan didn't show "evidence of individual irrevocable harm if the Preliminary Injunction is not issued."

Martin had argued the State Board "knowingly and purposefully" violated the state's Open Meetings/Open Records law when it announced, a month in advance, that it would schedule a closed session at the end of its regularly scheduled meetings, then cited the same four reasons for every closed session, even though it didn't know a month ahead of time what specific issues would be discussed.

Callahan found: "From the evidence, (the) Court finds there was no intent on the part of the Board to mislead or deceive the public with its notices and that the public as adequately advised of its meetings."