For much of three years, the relationship between Chris Nicastro and the Kansas City school district had been cold — death-blow cold.
Nicastro, Missouri’s education commissioner, had made her move at least once, maybe twice, to drop the Kansas City school board and probably Superintendent Steve Green in turn.
The school district had swung back in court. And even if district officials didn’t call for Nicastro’s resignation, they stood behind some of those angry legislators and community activists who did at the height of the tension a year ago.
But now, as Nicastro prepares to retire at the end of the year, they’re taking figurative bows together, survivors all.
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Thursday, the morning after what seemed a goodbye meeting with Green and the school board, Nicastro sat in a sunny Country Club Plaza coffee shop, basking in a thaw.
As she had done the day before, she paired herself and the Kansas City district as determined fighters called to the same work.
No apologies necessary. But neither were there claims of knowing the right way to fix America’s education inequalities. Just an impulse to action wherever too many children are failing.
“You have to intervene,” she said in an interview with The Star. “It may be wrong, but you do something. Somebody has to stand up and say, ‘It’s not OK.’”
The state school board that appointed Nicastro in the summer of 2009 wanted her to shake things up.
“Turn it upside down” is what she said one board member told her.
School performance and accountability, which had risen through the 1990s on the wings of Missouri’s Outstanding Schools Act, had flattened and needed a new boost.
The state was losing patience in particular with the achievement gaps between students of different economic means and different races, and most notably the struggling performance of high-poverty districts such as Kansas City and St. Louis.
Nicastro emerged as a powerful candidate. The one-time social studies teacher had become a determined force in high-minority/high-poverty districts in the “North County” of St. Louis County.
She led Riverview Gardens and then Hazelwood school districts as superintendent, earning Superintendent of the Year honors from administrators her last year in Hazelwood.
She’d had to go campaigning in Catholic parishes to get a direly needed bond issue passed in Riverview Gardens and did it, said Don Senti, a former superintendent who leads a coalition of St. Louis area school districts.
Nicastro needed to build middle schools and change school boundaries in Hazelwood — a political fireball for any superintendent — and got it done.
“I told her, ‘You can’t do that without getting fired,’” Senti said. “She is not afraid of anything.”
She was the first woman appointed state education commissioner in Missouri and the first commissioner to have come from urban school districts.
“I believe I was called to do this job,” Nicastro said. “It’s what I was supposed to do.”
‘Jury’s still out’
Green had never met Nicastro before he was thrust into a sudden education storm in Kansas City in 2011.
Kansas City’s hoped-for revival under previous Superintendent John Covington had imploded in a flash. Test scores that had been rising declined in Covington’s big year of massive school closings and new programming. And Covington had unexpectedly resigned that August to take a chancellor job in Detroit.
All confidence in Kansas City had evaporated. Its board was scrambling to regain its footing. Many civic leaders had had enough.
And here came Nicastro.
The state board, at her recommendation, voted that fall to strip Kansas City’s accreditation effective in January 2012. What needed to happen next, Nicastro didn’t know, but she was going to determine something.
On one day in October 2012, she came to meet with Green, and then his leadership Cabinet, and then his Cabinet with Green excused from the room. She had also met with many of the city’s most powerful civic leaders.
And she had a plan for the school board. She came with a proposed resolution that she wanted the board to sign that night, agreeing to step aside voluntarily.
“She was a chief executive very much in the mode of investigation,” Green recalled. “You could tell she was very concerned. I felt the weight of scrutiny.”
Green asked Nicastro about his status. Her answer: “The jury’s still out on you.”
She needed to help the state board get some direction on what the state’s role should be with the soon-to-be-unaccredited district, Nicastro said.
The law at that time gave the district two full school years, until June 2014, to regain accreditation before the state could intervene.
“That’s like a medical team telling you, ‘You’re dying,’ then saying, ‘We’ll be back in six weeks,’” Nicastro said.
She wanted the Kansas City board to step aside on its own and give the state the flexibility to intervene immediately, however it may be.
The Kansas City board refused and stayed on. And Green and his staff kept to their work.
So did the commissioner.
Big challenges remain
Nicastro was trying to wage reform in an increasingly and hotly divided educational landscape with a shrinking budget.
While the state had ideological battles over reforms in the 1990s, former state Education Commissioner Bob Bartman said, the work is harder now.
“The environment is in some ways toxic,” said Bartman, who recently retired as superintendent of the Center School District.
“There is a polarization of ideas, a lack of resources and more demands being placed on school districts,” he said. And while Bartman enjoyed funding increases to put the state plans to work in the 1990s, Nicastro is getting less.
Most of the state’s superintendents are backing many of the state’s efforts under Nicastro, including guiding districts to the Common Core State Standards; promoting early childhood programming; helping districts affected by a problematic student transfer law; and building a system to hold teacher preparation programs in universities more accountable.
But there have been conflicts.
Many Kansas City area superintendents disagreed with Nicastro’s decision in 2013 to hold off on recommending Kansas City for provisional accreditation, a decision that potentially exposed area districts to student transfers.
Their dissatisfaction multiplied when emails and records reported in The Star in December 2013 showed that Nicastro had been collaborating with the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations in arranging for Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust to develop a proposed state plan, funded by the foundations, to create a new Kansas City public school system.
The state auditor ultimately criticized the process the state used to award the contract to CEE-Trust as severely flawed.
Nicastro and her staff ended up instead proposing a general plan statewide for how the state should help struggling districts, focusing more on pre-emptive identification and support.
Kansas City carried on and this past summer, at Nicastro’s recommendation, received provisional accreditation.
Meanwhile, the unaccredited Normandy School District in the St. Louis area, crippled by thousands of student transfers, fell into financial distress and was taken over by the state.
That’s where Nicastro and her team have devoted most of their time for the past year.
Just as any plans for Kansas City would be made with its community, the state is working with Normandy’s, armed only with collaboration and persistence and no magic plan.
It’s a race to try to save Normandy before the district runs out of money, Nicastro said. “I don’t know if we can.”
She said she had decided to retire at the end of this year because she wants a chance to travel with her husband and visit her eight grandchildren. She thinks the time is right for the state’s education community to pause and reflect on all the changes.
For Kansas City, there is no rest. The administration and the school board survived. Provisional accreditation was gained, but a watchful community still wants to see more students meeting state test goals.
“We survived it, and it made us stronger,” Green said of the struggles with the state.
He appreciated Nicastro’s visit.
“She raised the bar,” he said. “I’ve seen her tenaciousness for children.”
Nicastro likes to think she’s ready for a little rest. She’s eager to be on nobody’s schedule but her own.
But she’s also feeling a bit freer to speak her mind. She’s not done with her frustrating life’s cause of making education equitable for all. She wants to keep whole community fires burning.
“I get very frustrated,” she said. “An awful lot of people don’t want to deal with this issue. It’s easier to drive to the suburbs and forget about it.
“Sure, I want to care about my child and my school, but I need to care about your child. I want your child to go to a good school.”