Missouri education chief, KC school board talk of collaboration

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro returned to Kansas City on Monday intent on clearing the air and rallying a singular focus to fix Kansas City’s schools.

She does not believe that states do well running school districts.

She wants more people in Kansas City talking and sharing ideas about the soon-to-be-unaccredited school district.

Nothing is determined yet. She wants all options on the table.

So why, as some board members pointed out in a special meeting Monday night, did so many people come away last month thinking Nicastro was pushing toward an immediate state takeover come Jan. 1?

A misunderstanding, she said.

“Sometimes when you articulate an option people don’t want to hear, it seems like that’s the only one on the table,” Nicastro said after the special meeting before a large crowd in Kansas City’s boardroom.

“Nothing is off the table. We have to do whatever is necessary to succeed.”

Kansas City school board members had been asking Nicastro to return and talk about the district ever since she surprised board members Oct. 25 by suggesting they should consider stepping aside when the district’s loss of accreditation takes effect Jan. 1.

In that closed session in October, the commissioner presented the board a draft resolution that would cede authority to a still-to-be-determined panel appointed by the state — if the board were to adopt it.

The board has taken no action on the proposal, with board members saying they need to know more about possible alternatives for managing Kansas City schools before they can consider stepping aside.

Board president Airick Leonard West on Monday night told Nicastro that the board is carrying on with its duties. It will be willing to evaluate any strategies that come forward.

But “at this time,” West said, “we are empowered to serve the scholars of this district.”

Nicastro also met with interim superintendent Steve Green and his top staff prior to the board meeting to talk about the staff’s plans and to move beyond fallout from the October visit that affected the administration.

According to an email with a staff member following up the October meetings, she advised that the district’s situation “could change dramatically” and that staff members “need to be prepared individually and collectively.”

Three of the district’s core cabinet members left last week to join former superintendent John Covington in Detroit. While it isn’t known if they would have joined Covington anyway, board members were concerned that the commissioner’s conversations were destabilizing the district during its transition.

Monday’s meeting focused on the collaboration needed going forward, Green said afterward.

“I was pleased with the tenor of the dialogue,” Green said. “We didn’t talk about the past. The meeting focused on the collaborative, not the punitive.”

Green’s staff has taken other steps to deal with the wounds felt in the loss of some of its key leaders.

It has held some “leadership summits” with a consultant to talk about the many situations revolving around the staff, he said.

“We did have a chance to talk about the loss and about the team’s resiliency to rebuild,” Green said. “We are dialed in on the work.”

Paul Vallas, a former superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District and the Philadelphia and Chicago districts, has been in Kansas City helping Green connect with potential administrators to fill the vacancies, Green said.

The Missouri School Boards’ Association is also providing resources, he said, and he has already identified some candidates who can serve as interim administrators with the possibility of becoming full time.

The state has had a site set up on its webpage at dese.mo.gov to take nominations for a state panel and gather other input about Kansas City’s future. Nicastro has said she wants to be able to present a plan for Kansas City at the state school board meeting Dec. 1.

The state would then take the plan out for public comment.

Kansas City’s plan would be entwined with an overall proposal Missouri is preparing to send to the U.S. Department of Education in the state’s bid to gain a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act.

States have the option to propose their own accountability plans.

Nationally there has not been a good example of a community effectively restoring a failing or unaccredited school district, Nicastro said. Kansas City, she said, must be the community that breaks the tide.

She was expecting more people to lodge ideas and other input on the state’s website. Though the audience was large Monday night, it could have been larger.

“I think there is absolutely nothing more important than this conversation,” she said after the meeting. “I hope everybody in this community will be clamoring to get in this discussion.”