Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro announced Monday that she will resign at the end of the year, and state and local officials reacted with a mix of praise, gratitude and, in some cases, relief.
Nicastro has been head of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education since 2009.
In a written statement announcing her departure, the department noted her tenure has included the implementation of new educational and classification standards for public schools. The department also adopted an initiative intended to push Missouri into a top-10 ranking for student achievement by 2020.
“This is exactly the right time both personally and professionally for a change in leadership,” Nicastro said in a written statement.
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But Nicastro has been frequently criticized by some state legislators and officials for her handling of high-profile issues, particularly as the state adopted new school accreditation standards and dealt with struggling districts.
An audit released last month faulted the department’s process for hiring a consultant — CEE-Trust — for a potential overhaul of the Kansas City Public Schools. The proposal would have reduced the scope of the district’s administration and featured a network of independent public schools, giving autonomy to schools deemed successful.
The problem, Deputy State Auditor Harry Otto said at the time, was that the way the state department chose CEE-Trust was plagued with potential conflicts of interest. Otto said the process did not properly guard against bias.
The CEE-Trust proposal is no longer a consideration, although school district officials have admitted finding some workable ideas within it.
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Steven Green, in a statement Monday, thanked Nicastro for her years of service.
“First and foremost, Chris Nicastro is an educator who dedicated her career to helping young people become successful lifelong learners,” he said. “As a fellow educator, I appreciate her commitment.”
Although the two did not always agree on politics, policies and practice, he said, “we certainly share a deep passion for public service and education.”
Said Jon Hile, president of the Kansas City school board: “She has worked very hard on behalf of the children of Missouri and I think she should be lauded for that.”
State Board of Education member John Martin was part of the team that brought Nicastro into her current position nearly five years ago.
“She has been a change agent for the state,” he said Monday. “I think she has been doing a wonderful job. … She shook things up.”
Indeed, she once asked all the Kansas City school board members to resign, to clear the way for a state takeover of the then-unaccredited district. The district this year regained provisional accreditation.
Martin said that although Nicastro has faced criticism across the state, “one of the things you run into when you’ve got someone making changes is that it creates a lot of discomfort. Commissioner Nicastro was significant in making changes and creating a lot of discomfort.
“Kansas City is now moving in a positive direction. But had the shake-up not occurred, I’m not sure we would have seen the district moving in such a positive direction.”
Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican and member of the Senate Education Committee, was traveling out of the state on Monday, but through a spokesman said he “enjoyed working with Chris (Nicastro) during these tough times” and wished her the best.
Some state lawmakers have been upset with the way the department has handled a student-transfer law for unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area. Other lawmakers have opposed the agency’s implementation of the Common Core educational standards.
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat who has not always agreed with Nicastro’s decisions, said he wished her well. “It will be good to get a fresh perspective on challenges facing education in Missouri.”
One of Nicastro’s most outspoken critics has been Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a St. Louis County Democrat.
Chappelle-Nadal said she was “ecstatic” to hear Nicastro was leaving, adding: “She made the right decision.”
Holsman said the Missouri Board of Education will appoint a replacement once Nicastro steps down.
In his statement, Green urged the state board to consult with urban, suburban and rural school districts during the transition.
“The next commissioner will have to address some very critical and ongoing issues that have an enormous impact on local school districts like Kansas City Public Schools, including school funding, Common Core and achievement standards,” Green said. “This is an excellent opportunity to lift Missouri’s education system to the next level.”
Kansas City community leaders said they would be watching the process.
MORE2, a community organization that seeks equity in education policy and funding, hopes to influence the selection of Nicastro’s successor, said a statement from the Rev. Rodney Williams, co-chairman of the group’s board, and Jan Parks, who leads its education task force.
The organization hopes “that the person selected is as concerned about racial and economic equity as the members of this organization.”