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Nicastro continues her push for school reform

Updated: 2014-01-04T03:58:36Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

Since her department admittedly mishandled a plan to propose the remaking of the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools, state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has heard from a city divided.

She’s been told everything from “resign and stay out” to “blow up the district and take it over tomorrow,” she told The Star’s editorial board Friday.

And she hopes the controversy over the way Indianapolis-based consulting group CEE-Trust won a contract to study Kansas City won’t derail what she says is a critical process to rethink the way the state will deal with struggling schools.

“We didn’t know how to do this, quite frankly,” Nicastro said. “We should have done it differently.”

But no decisions have been made, she said. The CEE-Trust report due to the state board Jan. 13 will be just one proposal among others that will be weighed in coming weeks.

“We can’t allow year after year to go by” and not come up with a better, systemic way “to have quality schools for all kids,” she said.

Nicastro and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education encountered controversy after emails and records reported by The Star in early December showed that the department, CEE-Trust and two Kansas City foundations — Kauffman and Hall Family — had been planning the project as far back as April.

Nicastro had been saying since late 2011 that she wanted to make long-range plans to change how the state works with struggling districts. But the department’s discussions with the two foundations and CEE-Trust were happening without the knowledge of Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Steve Green and his administration, which was carrying on separate work with a state team, hoping to get a chance at attaining provisional accreditation.

The records showed a bid process later that summer that strongly favored CEE-Trust over other bidders. CEE-Trust’s more-expensive bid was chosen, Nicastro said, because CEE-Trust, unlike the other bidders, was proposing a broad approach to look at remaking the system.

The department didn’t originally go to a bid process because the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations were offering to pay for the services, and the department thought it could simply work with them and their preferred vendor, CEE-Trust.

The foundations were concerned, however, that any proposal that came from CEE-Trust under those circumstances would become the foundations’ plan, Nicastro said. They and Nicastro agreed that the state should maintain control of the process to make it a state plan. The board directed in June that the project needed to be put out for bid.

Some Democratic lawmakers have called for her resignation. Some district-supporting groups want the CEE-Trust study process shelved. But others have urged the state to carry on with CEE-Trust’s work.

“We have not made up our minds about anything,” Nicastro said Friday. And whatever plan the state school board ultimately approves, if there is a change, would need a transition period of at least a year.

The Kansas City district, if it continues improvement made over the past two years, would still have a chance to earn provisional accreditation and a reprieve from state intervention.

The road ahead promises to be difficult, Nicastro said, because many powerful groups in Kansas City have been wrestling over the future of the schools, and “I don’t see any unity among any of these groups.”

Kansas City Public Schools and its surrounding districts are feeling extra stress over Kansas City’s unaccredited status because of a problematic state student transfer law. It would allow children in the Kansas City district to transfer to neighboring districts, with Kansas City billed for the costs of tuition and transportation.

Legislators have vowed again to try to fix the law, which is now bankrupting unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area that began implementing it in August. But Kansas City could avoid the law’s effects if the state were to grant it provisional accreditation now.

“The transfer situation has polluted the whole discussion,” Nicastro said.

After Kansas City earned a surprisingly high score in the provisional range on the state’s report card in August, the district argued it had earned provisional accreditation, and area superintendents rallied in the district’s support.

Friday, Margie Vandeven, the assistant education commissioner for school quality, reasserted the department’s decision not to consider Kansas City for provisional status without at least another year of improvement.

The state transitioned to a new accountability system in 2013. The new system intends to set higher standards overall, but it also gives districts that have been low-performing more opportunities to earn points for growth.

“We need to recognize where there is progress,” Vandeven said. “But it can’t be on one year.”

The Kansas City school board has sued the state, claiming that the district should receive provisional status. It also is seeking a temporary injunction to be declared provisional while the case is pending. That would shield the district from the effects of the transfer law.

For now, three districts in the state remain unaccredited — Kansas City and two districts, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, in the St. Louis area. Others, like St. Louis, are at risk of becoming unaccredited by 2015 if they don’t show enough improvement.

The commissioner is charged by law ultimately to recommend plans of action for addressing unaccredited districts. The next two months will be spent in search of consensus, but it can’t be perfect, Nicastro said.

“The reality is, we’re going to make a recommendation to the state board,” she said. “One thing I know, whatever it is, some won’t like it.”

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

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