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President of Missouri Education Board defends Chris Nicastro amid calls for resignation

Updated: 2013-12-10T02:37:02Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Some lawmakers and teachers’ union leaders on Monday called for Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro’s resignation, citing a report in The Star of emails showing a questionable bid process and development of plans for Kansas City Public Schools without the district’s knowledge.

But state school board President Peter Herschend said people are reacting to a planning process for Kansas City that is still evolving and has been — and will be — the responsibility of the state board.

The board has urged the commissioner and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to bring swift change to the state’s unaccredited school districts, including Kansas City, Herschend said in a prepared statement. This is a time for conversation, he said.

“Some groups are fighting even suggestions of change,” he said. “We ask you that you reserve judgment before any plan has been formulated or even ideas discussed.”

The emails showed a collaboration among Nicastro, the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations and the Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust research group starting in April to prepare a proposal for a new school system for Kansas City.

The records also described a bidding process that gave the work contract to CEE-Trust in August after it had already been working with the state and the foundations.

Eight Democratic lawmakers in a written statement accused Nicastro of abusing her power and asked the state school board to open an internal investigation of the bidding process.

State Sen. Paul LeVota and state Rep. Genise Montecillo of St. Louis County, who have challenged Nicastro previously, were joined Monday by state representatives Reps. Bonnaye Mims of Kansas City, Judy Morgan of Kansas City, Ira Anders of Independence, John Mayfield of Independence and Joe Runions of Grandview, and state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of St. Louis County.

“It is imperative that she resign immediately as state education commissioner or, if she fails to do so, be removed from her post by the Missouri State Board of Education,” the statement read.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who was asked about Nicastro during a news conference Monday in Fulton, Mo., said that it was a good time for the state Board of Education to “monitor and evaluate” concerns raised about her, The Associated Press reported.

In his statement, Herschend said the board ultimately chose CEE-Trust, agreeing with the department that CEE-Trust was “the clear choice for conducting analyses and making recommendations for transforming Kansas City Public Schools.”

The process was “open and competitive,” he said.

The complaining lawmakers and the American Federation of Teachers’ Missouri chapter saw the appearance of favoritism in the bidding process, in which CEE-Trust was chosen over three competitors with less-expensive bids, including Boston-based CTAC — an experienced agency that offered to do the work at a third of the cost of CEE-Trust’s bid.

The Kauffman and Hall Family foundations are paying the $385,000 cost of CEE-Trust’s contract.

Missouri AFT President John Hamilton said that Nicastro’s actions led to the hiring of “no-bid consultants favoring privatization” of public schools.

CEE-Trust Executive Direct Ethan Gray on Monday wanted to allay fears of private-sector control of schools.

“This is not a privatization plan,” he said. “This is not a charter school plan. I can unequivocally say this is a public school plan.”

The ultimate aim, he said, is that “every neighborhood has an excellent school.”

The plan is due in January and will get public debate before it goes to the state board for a decision.

And it’s not the only plan out there, Herschend noted.

Earlier this fall, several Kansas City area school superintendents proposed a school and district accountability plan.

Their proposal calls for more intense state support of provisionally accredited districts and the creation of a statewide achievement district that would operate failing schools within districts that perform below provisional.

Republican state Sen. David Pearce has pre-filed legislation for next year that also includes a proposal for a similar achievement district.

“All of the recommendations for school system transformation will be debated by teachers, parents, students and community leaders,” Herschend said.

The board and the department have come under extra pressure to give Kansas City provisional accreditation and a reprieve from state oversight.

The pressure comes in part because Kansas City scored surprisingly high — in the provisional range — in its August state report card. Another factor is a student transfer law case pending in the state Supreme Court that could prompt students to leave for neighboring districts if Kansas City remains unaccredited.

In his statement, Herschend noted that despite Kansas City’s improvement this year, the district’s academic performance remains low.

Only some 30 percent of the district’s students are performing at or above the proficient level in language arts, math and science — and the percentage has been declining in language arts.

Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Steve Green is frustrated by the department’s emphasis on the district’s struggles at a time when he says it is improving overall and is experiencing leadership and financial stability.

The emails show that the department officials in Jefferson City were mounting an argument against Kansas City at the same time that the district’s work with the state’s regional improvement team was being praised.

The district needed to attain at least 50 percent of its possible points to be considered for provisional. It rallied from a preliminary score of 19.6 percent last December to reach 60 percent in August.

Its score rested heavily on credit for improvement, which Nicastro has argued will be hard to sustain. She has said all along that she thinks the district needs to show at least another year of growth before it should be considered for provisional status.

Nicastro has been the state’s education commissioner since Aug. 1, 2009. She previously was superintendent of two St. Louis area school districts: Riverview Gardens and, from 2002 to 2009, Hazelwood.

The Missouri Association of School Administrators honored her as its 2009 superintendent of the year.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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