When it comes to picking Missouri’s next education commissioner, state school board President Peter Herschend doesn’t want any time wasted.
The board’s working plan to decide by the end of the month on a successor to retiring Commissioner Chris Nicastro has alarmed many superintendents across the state.
There is no need for a national search, Herschend said. No need to convene state working groups to brainstorm on the state’s vision or list the qualities needed in the next chief educator.
“We have clear-stated objectives,” Herschend told The Star. “We know qualified men and women available today. We cannot afford to let education in Missouri go on cruise control for the four months of time it takes for a full-blown search.”
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If the board’s work goes as planned, he said, he expects it will emerge from a lengthy closed session at its regular meeting Monday ready to present its choice, take a vote in open session and announce it.
For those district-level school officials around the state who had conflicts with Nicastro and the board, Herschend’s plan isn’t easing any concerns.
“Most people see an opportunity to get someone who can work with districts in the state,” said Roger Kurtz, executive director of the Missouri Association of School Administrators. “We’ve got to get everybody on the same page. We’ve got to have someone with the ability to pull people together to solve problems.”
Nicastro announced last month she would retire at the end of the year. The former Hazelwood School District superintendent was chosen commissioner in 2009 through a national search process at a time, Herschend said, when the board was looking to make changes.
D. Kent King, Nicastro’s predecessor, had died of cancer, and the state board did not think it had a strong selection of candidates to replace him, Herschend said. The board wanted someone to help set an aggressive plan to improve schools in the new century, he said.
This time around the board thinks it has strong candidates, Herschend said. He declined to say how many, but he said the board is looking at people both within the education department and outside. The board wants someone who can step in quickly and pick up work with struggling districts like the state-run Normandy district and carry on the state’s established strategic objectives.
“We’re not in the business of finding an entirely new education model for Missouri schools,” he said.
What’s unsettling to many district-level leaders is that they think the state board is going into a closed search process at a time when trust in the department has been shaken for many of them.
Nicastro had to lead the state through a difficult experience with a student transfer law that has districts in Kansas City and St. Louis dealing with students moving from unaccredited to accredited districts.
She was pushing behind the scenes toward a possible reorganization of Kansas City Public Schools in 2013 at the same time that area superintendents and many lawmakers were urging her to support Kansas City’s bid for provisional accreditation.
She also came under criticism in 2013 for correspondence with a political organization that was preparing a petition initiative that would ultimately lead to the Amendment 3 constitutional amendment issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. The initiative, which would end tenure and require more student test data in teacher evaluations, is opposed by most district school boards and administrator organizations.
“A lot of the dissatisfaction with the commissioner has something to do with making change,” said state board member O. Victor Lenz of the St. Louis area. “Changes had to be done to assist or change failing schools.”
Nicastro, Herschend said, “was a lightning rod.”
The 29 members of the Cooperating School Districts of Greater Kansas City want a more open search process, said Executive Director Gayden Carruth. They want to see the state soliciting applications. They want a forum for stakeholders throughout the state to provide ideas on the kind of education leader the state needs.
“It is absolutely essential that Missouri’s education department have the best leader it can, and that is best done through an open and transparent process,” Carruth said.
To the superintendents and others who want a part in the process, Herschend said he is telling them to send the board the names of anyone they think should be candidates. He’s telling them to send in their ideas on the kind of leadership qualities the board should be looking for. Many already have, he said.
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