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Midwest Democracy | Mayor may yet have an advisory role in KC school district

Kansas City Mayor Sly James
Kansas City Mayor Sly James

The endangered Kansas City school board resolved Wednesday that it is willing to change its shape, while moving closer to partnering with the mayor’s office.

Mayor Sly James told The Star earlier Wednesday that he supports the board’s still-evolving plan to create an advisory panel appointed in part by the mayor.

Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro — who may soon be in position to recommend whether the local board stays or goes — has not been won over, at least not yet.

The commissioner was encouraged that the board wants to build a partnership with the mayor’s office, she told The Star Wednesday, but she said concerns remain about the long-term effectiveness of the elected board.

“Nothing has changed,” Nicastro said. “The concerns are still in effect.”

The board passed resolutions to back legislation that would preserve the local school board, shrink its size from nine to seven, and have its six subdistrict members elected at-large rather than just in the districts.

The board determined it needs more time to build consensus around the proposal for an advisory panel.

The school board made its moves with a sense of urgency to try to involve the public in its debate while hurrying to head off multiple legislative efforts that could lead to dissolving the board in favor of a state-appointed board.

“I think we all understand the political situation we’re in,” board Vice President Crispin Rea said. “Our being able to go forward and implement our vision — that’s what is at stake right here.”

Nicastro spent much of last fall in Kansas City weighing the community’s support for a potential state-appointed administrative board, among other possible changes. She told the board in a closed meeting in October that it should consider stepping aside voluntarily.

The April school board election apparently did little to boost the commissioner’s confidence. By Election Day, 14 candidates were vying for four open seats, but only two had entered at the filing deadline.

“It was a race of write-in candidates,” Nicastro said. “That’s a concern that something is clearly not working well.”

The board still has time.

Nicastro said she is not poised with any recommendation to change the board if lawmakers give the state immediate authority to intervene in an unaccredited district.

Current law gives the school district two full years — until June 2014 — to regain accreditation before the state would have the power to unseat the board.

If the law were changed, Nicastro said, she would return to Kansas City for more public discussions before she would recommend any changes. Any decisions to intervene in Kansas City would be made by the state school board.

“We’d be back,” she said. “We’d offer the community another opportunity to weigh in.”

James played a heavy role last time Nicastro was gathering public input. James proposed putting the schools under mayoral control.

That proposal, which needed new law to make it possible, did not gain necessary traction with lawmakers or support from Nicastro. But the advisory board idea brings the mayor back into the picture.

The Kansas City school board’s plan to create a mayoral advisory panel requires no changes in law, only a change in board policy.

James said Wednesday he is supporting the concept. He doesn’t know whom he would appoint, but he is thinking on how he’ll do it.

“I don’t have people in mind as of yet,” he said. “I want to institute a process to select the best people based on objective criteria, who will work in the best interest of the schoolchildren and making sure they contribute to academic achievement.”

The board’s proposal would create an advisory board that would have two appointees by the mayor, plus a parent and a student selected by district organizations with public input.

Board president Airick Leonard West decided the board needed some extra time to try to reach a consensus.

“As I’ve visited with the community and board members, most recognize the value of partnering with the mayor to address community-specific issues that affect scholar achievement,” he said after the meeting. “Our intention is to deliberate a little further to determine the best form that partnership will take.”

Both the advisory committee and the resolution for legislative changes are part of the board’s continuing desire to improve its governance of the district, West said.

The idea of shrinking the school board and having subdistrict candidates elected at large has resurfaced several times in recent years.

Some of the ideas in the board’s resolution have already been introduced into legislation sponsored by state Rep. Myron Neth of Liberty. If it were to pass, the two at-large seats up for re-election in 2014 would be eliminated. The board would be left with six members from each subdistrict and a seventh member representing the entire district. All of the seats would be elected at-large, however, and the election would move from April to August to help boost participation by candidates and voters.

The language, though, is fluid and will change as the debate goes on, Neth said.

The bill — HB 2043 — has passed out of the House Education Committee and is waiting to be heard in the Rules Committee.

Nicastro praised the school board for working with the mayor’s office and pursuing important partnerships. But she said the value in the board’s proposals will be measured by outcomes.

“Ultimately any change the board elects to take is its prerogative,” she said. “Is it good? That will be determined by the community and the results they get.”

The state already is heavily involved with district administration in executing a turnaround plan to improve student achievement.

That work goes on regardless of who is governing the district, Nicastro said.

Her support of eliminating the two-year grace period is not directed at unseating Kansas City’s board, she said. The commissioner has been backing a change in the law for several years because she believes the state should have the discretion to step in sooner with any school district that falls unaccredited.

The state might also want to allow a district’s school board to carry on beyond the two years if the state is satisfied that progress is being made, she said.

“The jury’s not in” on whether Kansas City is making the urgent progress it needs, Nicastro said.

Some of the state’s experts, at the district’s request, are completing an audit of the curriculum the district rewrote in 2010. The state’s regional district improvement team is advising the district and they are jointly reporting on their progress every month as the district carries out a transformation plan launched under former Superintendent John Covington and continuing under Superintendent Steve Green.

The state’s leadership team spoke optimistically about the process in the latest report earlier this week.

Wednesday, Nicastro said she believed the state had improved its support and is in a better position to see that the district persists in its focus to improve student achievement. But she reserves her judgment, she said, until test scores turn upward.

“Ultimately,” she said, “there is no optimism until we see the trend reverse.”

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