KC school board plan would give mayor an advisory role

In an attempt to save itself, the Kansas City school board is considering giving the mayor an advisory role and seeking a new law to elect all its members at large.

The board will be debating a plan for a three-member panel of advisers who would be appointed by the mayor and sit in on most open and closed board meetings, board President Airick Leonard West told The Star on Tuesday.

The board needs the public trust, West said. And Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who once made a pitch to take control of the district, can help restore it.

“If we don’t address the flagging confidence issue, we can’t be successful,” West said. “The more we have the mayor involved, the more that instills confidence.”

The board is striving for a compromise in a contentious arena where lawmakers and state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro are besieged by demands to reform the newly unaccredited district.

“We’re trying to find that third rail between ‘hands-off’ and ‘blow it up,’” West said.

Key players in the proposals — James and Nicastro — aren’t ready to endorse it yet.

One hang-up is that the board is still waiting on election results — expected today — to determine three of its nine members, including whether West is returning to the board.

“It’s certainly a conversation worth having,” James’ spokesman Danny Rotert said. “(But) multiple things are going on. The mayor is interested in talking with the new board when it is seated.”

Nicastro’s office issued a statement saying the Education Department did not know enough details to comment.

The statement added: “The department does applaud any efforts by the Kansas City school board to engage the community in support of the district.”

The board also wants the support of lawmakers.

The board this month expects to debate a resolution calling for legislation that would reduce the number of board members from nine to seven. The seven members would each represent a subdistrict but would be elected at-large.

The board also wants to move the election from April to August, when there would probably be more issues on the ballot and a higher turnout. And the board wants the mayor to be able to appoint someone to fill a seat that becomes vacant between elections.

State Rep. Myron Neth has begun floating the board’s ideas among a Missouri legislature that is largely determined to do “something substantial” around Kansas City schools, he said.

“I can’t say that this is the direction others are wanting to go,” he said. “It leaves the board intact.”

Numerous bills have been struggling through the legislative session, some providing for various state interventions and some that would break the district into pieces to be absorbed by neighboring districts.

No new legislation can be introduced at this date, so the school board’s proposal would have to be amended to a bill already in the mill.

Neth said he is encouraged by the school board’s interest in a compromise and he is considering opening his legislation to proposals from a board he believes is committed to the changes it has made over the past three years.

“But when I throw the idea out there,” he said, “They (legislators) tell me, ‘Myron, we’ve heard all this from the school board before.’ ”

West has also been talking with state Rep. Mike Talboy, who said there is still time to find some traction in the 5½ weeks left in the session.

“People are moving off some of the extreme ideas and trying to focus on what we can all agree on,” Talboy said. “The communication lines are open and a lot of traffic is going back and forth.”

All of the bills that would mandate changes in the control of Kansas City Public Schools face long odds of passing, including any that might pick up the school board’s proposal.

Bills with a better chance, moving through both the House and Senate, would give the state school board discretion to take control of a district at any time after it becomes unaccredited, rather than having to wait two full years under current law.

That’s why the school board is especially concerned with gaining the favor of Nicastro, who would be recommending the fate of the district to the state board.

“We put this on the table, that we have a plan and we’re already implementing the plan,” West said. “That takes pressure off the legislature to come up with a solution, and that takes pressure off of (Nicastro).”