Nicastro says she needs more time to decide on KC district action

Too many competing ideas. Not enough legal authority.

Regrettably, said Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, that problematic mix compelled her to tell the State Board of Education Friday that she needed more time before she could recommend what to do about the Kansas City Public Schools.

But don’t take that delay to mean the situation isn’t dire, she said, nor that standing pat is an option for the district, which is still going to become unaccredited Jan. 1.

Nicastro read from a letter in which someone concerned over the future of the district urged the state school board not to let the district come under state intervention. Let a mayor-led collaborative marshal the community’s best interests, the letter writer said.

The letter sounded very much like some of the more than 500 letters and emails the state has received since it opened the future of the district to public input earlier this fall.

But this letter, she said, was written 10 years ago. The fall of 2001. When the district was once before seemingly at the end of its rope.

“The message (in the old letter) is the same,” Nicastro said. “Leave us alone. We will fix the problem.”

The children in Kansas City’s schools can’t wait out the problems as was asked of the children 10 years ago, she said.

“We pray we aren’t having this discussion 10 years from now,” she said.

Nicastro had hoped to recommend the state’s action at the board meeting in Branson, but because the community remains divided, making a choice now “would only add to the dysfunction and prolong the disruption for children and adults.”

While waiting for the community and the state legislature to act, Nicastro said, the school district’s leadership and its educators, working with the state’s support team, must continue to intensify their efforts through the district’s ongoing transformation plan.

Kansas City school board member Arthur Benson, who represented the school district Friday, embraced the call for more community collaboration, but defended the power of an elected board to best represent the ideas of the people.

“I am running for re-election,” Benson said. “I invite anyone with a differing view to run against me. We can debate the issue as many times as there are citizens to listen. ... That is the means our founding fathers devised. It is still a good one.”

Benson said he has yet to see any proposals better for classrooms than the plan put into action under the current board’s watch.

“I don’t know how changing governance will make any difference in what’s happening in the classroom,” he said.

The Urban Summit, an umbrella group of African-American civic leaders, previously had called for a state-appointed board, with local representatives.

Clinton Adams Jr., a member of the Urban Summit, said Friday that a short postponement to determine whether the mayor’s plan has merit may be reasonable. But he also raised concerns about further delay.

“Our fear is that by delaying state intervention, the state board and commissioner have left a void that may be filled by destructive legislation that threatens the future existence of the Kansas City School District,” Adams said. “We think it’s important that the district be reformed but not dissolved.”

Kansas City’s Interim Superintendent Steve Green reiterated that he and his staff continue to tend to the daily work in the schools while others wrangle over the district’s future governance.

“It would be helpful to have greater clarity about what lies ahead...,” Green said in a written statement. “However, I fully understand and appreciate that consensus building in a diverse community like Kansas City is extremely complex and takes time.”

Nicastro said she was eager to take action, and frustrated at putting off her recommendation.

“The 17,000 children in Kansas City deserve action now,” she said. She believes an appointed board could speed improvement in the district, but “the additional conflict that such a decision would create without clear community and legal authority is not worth the risk.”

State school board President Peter Herschend agreed that the time for patience is past. All the parties need to come together around a solution, he said.

“If it doesn’t lead to change on a significant level, and soon, then we have failed,” Herschend said. “We must not fail.”

Nicastro pondered her plan for Kansas City at the same time that she and her staff have been preparing an overall state school accountability plan so that Missouri could join many other states seeking to be set free from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

An initial draft of Missouri’s accountability plan was presented to the state board Thursday and included proposals on how the state would collaborate with unaccredited school districts to bring intense efforts to quickly raise academic performance.

The plan, which is now opened up for public comment, would give the state the authority to assign a project manager and an instructional improvement coordinator as liaisons between an unaccredited district’s leadership and the state in driving a turnaround plan specific to the district’s situation.

The project manager would monitor finances and resources, oversee district and building improvement plans and help coordinate technical assistance.

The instructional improvement coordinator would analyze the district’s educational programs, identify strategies and assessments, coordinate training and assign instructional improvement staff to coach teachers and principals.

James proposed that the mayor be in charge of the Kansas City district and that the mayor select a chief executive officer. Then the mayor and that officer together would select chief officers for academics and business.

The Obama administration has given states the option to propose their own accountability plans while Congress continues to work on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind.

The federal law, which requires that all public school systems achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014, has reached the point where a majority of schools have fallen out of compliance and are facing federal sanctions.

Under Obama’s offer, states will not have to wait for Congress to finish rewriting the law if they propose their own rigorous accountability plan that meets the approval of the U.S. Department of Education.

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