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Stakes are high ahead of forum on plans to shake up KC public schools

Updated: 2014-01-28T04:59:13Z

By JOE ROBERTSON

The Kansas City Star

The Kansas City school district has long been finding itself at a point people call a crossroads.

But this time, the circumstances that are expected to draw a large crowd to a public forum Wednesday night are exceptionally dramatic — and vexing.

“One path leads to a completely different Kansas City school district,” said state Sen. Jason Holsmana Kansas City Democrat. “The other path focuses on trying to repair and restore the existing district.”

And unlike the first time state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro moved to shake up the district in late 2011, the Missouri State Board of Education would have the authority to pull the trigger if Nicastro recommends an overhaul.

So the debate and the accompanying anxiety is building as invested people anticipate the meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Paseo Academy, 4747 Flora Ave.

The state has posted six proposals on its website and is taking online feedback. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is holding public forums and will conduct a workshop with the state board Feb. 10 — all leading to the state board meeting Feb. 18, when Nicastro hopes to recommend a statewide plan to address unaccredited school districts.

The state’s proposal could draw from all of the plans and from public feedback, department spokeswoman Sarah Potter said.

There is a proposal from district superintendents, a proposal from the Missouri Charter Public School Association and proposals from each of the state’s three unaccredited districts. But the most attention is being directed at a proposal developed by Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust because it was commissioned by the state, with controversy, and proposes dramatic changes.

Many people are seeing a strong opportunity “to blow up (the district) and start anew,” said Holsman, who said he has not “dismissed or embraced” the CEE-Trust plan.

He was speaking Monday at Center High School in the Center School District in south Kansas City, where Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made a stop to visit students. Nixon, a Democrat, pitched his budget proposal to increase state funding for K-12 education by $278 million, while trying to fend off a potential Republican move for a major tax cut.

Center, a small district of about 2,300 students, has won praise for earning strong accreditation marks from the state while serving a population that includes a concentration of poverty that is less than, but close to, the amount Kansas City Public Schools serve.

Nixon, after praising the work at Center, declined to give reporters his assessment on the performance of the people overseeing Kansas City schools at the local or state level. Nixon said he preferred to keep the focus on giving “the players on the field” — whoever they are — the state’s support to put them “in position to perform.”

Under CEE-Trust’s proposal, Kansas City Public Schools would be given over to a community school office run by a commissioner-appointed CEO. A state-appointed advisory board would recruit nonprofit entities capable of running effective schools.

Chosen operators would have broad freedom in determining curriculum, staff and educational philosophy as long as they met academic performance agreements.

Center, or other successful surrounding school districts, could step forward as some of those nonprofit operators.

While some organizations have lined up firmly for or against the CEE-Trust plan, many groups and individuals find themselves caught in a complicated middle ground.

The Urban Summit community group in Kansas City likes many — though not all — of the ideas in the CEE-Trust proposal, according to its education committee chairman, Clinton Adams. But the group is troubled by the process by which the state contracted CEE-Trust.

The Missouri state auditor is reviewing the process in which the state education department and the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations originally arranged a plan to assign CEE-Trust the contract, funded by the foundations.

The state education board determined the contract needed to be put up for bid — and CEE-Trust’s more expensive bid won.

The state’s plan for Kansas City needs to show “meaningful and authentic collaboration with the community,” Adams said, and confidence in the state’s approach is damaged by a contract process that looks “exclusionary, elitist and problematic.”

“But that doesn’t mean you should discount the work,” Adams said.

Some organizations, including the church community organization MORE2 and the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP, have called on the state board to reject the CEE-Trust plan.

Mayor Sly James has been watching the sharp division in the community and wants to help education and community leaders find that difficult middle ground, said his director of public affairs, Joni Wickham. He is planning to bring together some area lawmakers with some of the proponents of the different plans later this week.

The commissioner can expect to hear a vast range of interpretations Wednesday night.

Andrea Flinders, the president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers, warned that the plan’s premise of ending all contracts and turning schools over to recruited independent school operations that may or may not survive would create too much uncertainty for prospective teachers.

“Teachers would run like mad from the area,” she said.

But the primary author of the proposal, CEE-Trust’s Ethan Gray, called the plan “the most pro-teacher plan we could think of.”

The concept relies on the belief that teachers will flock to autonomous schools that would have the freedom to set their own pay scales and classroom environments.

Kansas City Public Schools, in the meantime, will have a chance to evade whatever comes from the debate if it can sustain improvement it made in the last two years and rise out of its unaccredited status.

A state report card score in the provisional range this summer would warrant a recommendation for provisional accreditation, Nicastro said.

But whatever happens, the state intends to have a plan for unaccredited school districts ready to go.

Public hearing

The state of Missouriwill hold a forum on plans to improve unaccredited school districts at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Paseo Academy, 4747 Flora Ave. Plans may be reviewed and comments made online at DESE.MO.gov.

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

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