KC mayor, school board leader vow to lead community effort on schools’ future

Talk about your shows of unity.

On Monday, Mayor Sly James shouldered up next to the president of the same Kansas City school board that the mayor said he would be willing to unseat to help turn the fortunes of the school district.

The board president, Airick Leonard West, publicly had remained mostly out of touch last week as James sent his proposal of mayoral control to Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro.

But James and West shared the same message in a joint news conference in the mayor’s office Monday.

All options are on the table regarding the soon-to-be-unaccredited school district except “blowing the district up” or “doing nothing.”

The two will be leading a community effort to find a consensus somewhere in between. West and the school board might be willing to step down — if they see a clear better way. And James just might seek control, but only if that’s what comes of the community process.

“If I were smart and wanted to get re-elected I would run from this issue,” James said. “But running away (by too many people in the past) is why we’re here.”

Said West: “There is a better way forward. This is going to take a partnership with the mayor’s office . We’re going to push for a consensus.”

James had been meeting privately with a group of legislators, area superintendents and other civic and education leaders to try and forge a local plan for the future of the district, which will become unaccredited Jan. 1.

From those meetings, James sent a 14-page letter to Nicastro while the commissioner and the Missouri state Board of Education were holding a regularly scheduled meeting Thursday and Friday in Branson.

Nicastro had expected to present the state board with a plan on how she thought the district should be managed once it becomes unaccredited, but she ended up saying she needed more time to decide.

The Kansas City community was too divided over the issue, she said, and some of the plans on the table — including a state-appointed administrative board or mayoral-controlled leadership — are not possible right now without changes in state law.

For now, the state will continue working with the district administration and its elected school board to attempt reforms to improve district performance, she said, but Kansas City needs to work out some of its differences before the state can assert more control.

The state has been supporting the district in an ongoing transformation plan in its classrooms that the state approved. That work carries on, West said.

As law now stands, the Kansas City Public Schools will have two full school years — until June 30, 2014 — to regain accreditation before the state can change the district’s leadership.

If the district remained unaccredited, the law would compel the state to take action, either by replacing the elected board with an appointed administrative board, or by dissolving the district such as by dividing its boundaries into neighboring districts.

There is no provision in the law right now that would allow a mayor-controlled school system.

James and West did not set a specific timeline, but they would like to find that consensus by spring.

“We won’t get this chance again,” James said. “This is it. We need to be focused on doing it right, not doing it fast.”