Bill to let state replace KC school board clears Missouri Senate

JEFFERSON CITY The state would be able to replace the school board of the unaccredited Kansas City district with a new governing structure as soon as this year under a bill that won near unanimous approval Thursday in the Missouri Senate.

The legislation’s Senate and House sponsors agreed the vote was the biggest hurdle to the bill’s passage. It now goes to the House, where similar legislation was approved earlier this year without any opposition.

“I’m just thrilled we got this through the Senate,” said Republican Sen. David Pearce of Warrensburg, the bill’s sponsor. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Can we just wait?’ No, we can’t wait anymore. There are too many students not getting the quality of education they deserve.”

Pearce added: “Getting this out of the Senate is a big accomplishment.”

The bill passed on a 33 to 1 vote.

Under current law, a school district has two years after losing its accreditation to turn its performance around or face the potential of a state takeover. Legislation passed Thursday removes the two-year waiting period.

Most assume the bill will result in the state dissolving the Kansas City school board. In December, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro unsuccessfully lobbied the Kansas City school board to consider voluntarily turning control of the district over to a not-yet-created special administrative board. The district officially became unaccredited on Jan. 1 after failing to reach state performance standards for the second time in 11 years.

“We are very pleased that the bill has passed this significant step. There is more work to be done, and we will continue to work with the House and Senate leadership on the issue,” Nicastro said.

However, House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat, said there is no guarantee that the state will move to immediately take over the district. The school board has changed considerably since losing accreditation, he said, and “most of the most egregious actors have left.”

“That makes a significant difference,” Talboy said. “We just don’t know what the next step would be, but the conversations will start to take place very soon.”

The Kansas City school board is considering changes that board President Airick Leonard West hopes will relieve some of the pressure on Nicastro to make dramatic moves.

The board began a series of open workshops Thursday night to talk about board proposals that would create an additional advisory panel that would be appointed by Mayor Sly James.

The board also is considering a resolution calling for legislative changes that would reduce the size of the board from nine to seven members and require all members to be elected at-large.

James last December made a pitch to the state to place the district under mayoral control. That effort failed to gain traction, but the mayor said he is interested in talking further about an advisory role. That move would not need legislative action, but a change in board policy.

The school board has frequently talked about reducing its size — which is set by statute and unique to Kansas City.

The urgency for change has mounted as legislators have pushed several bills aimed at Kansas City.

The new legislation would give the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the ability to immediately start doing whatever is needed to turn the failing district around, said Rep. Mike Lair, a Chillicothe Republican who sponsored a similar bill in the House.

“Two years is too long to wait,” Lair said. “A kid who started the Kansas City school district last fall, all the sudden on the first of January he’s in an unaccredited district. Under the current statute, it would be the middle of his junior year before anything could be done. And with a bureaucracy the size of the Kansas City school district, effectively he’d be out of school before any meaningful changes could be done.”

If the state establishes an alternative governing structure for a district, it must review and recertify that new structure every three years. In addition, the state must create a public comment method, establish expectations for academic progress by creating a time line for full accreditation, and provide annual reports to the General Assembly and governor on the district’s progress.

Talboy said once the legislation passes and is signed by the governor, the real conversation will begin.

“If you dissolve the school board, what goes in its place?” he said. “That’s where the waters get very muddied. That’s where the real fireworks will happen down the line. We’re not there yet.”

Lair admitted he was very surprised the bill passed the Senate. His version of the bill stalled on the Senate floor.

But he’s confident that the House will quickly approve Pearce’s legislation.

“This got through the House education committee, rules committee and the full House without one opposing vote,” Lair noted. “We’ll get this thing passed.”