Emails detail a hidden plan for Kansas City Public Schools

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro

Backed by two of the most influential foundations in Kansas City, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and a state-hired consultant are planning the future of Kansas City Public Schools as a slate wiped clean.

Revelations in emails obtained by The Star and dating to April show a state education department eager to create a new school system, even as the long-beleaguered but stabilized district was preparing to celebrate its best academic improvement in years.

The electronic trail exposes a rushed bidding process, now criticized, that ultimately landed Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust a $385,000 contract to develop a long-range overhaul for the district’s failing schools.

Summer discussions in emails reveal Nicastro’s wish for a statewide district to gather poor-performing schools under new leadership, with an office for innovation and charter school expansion.

In mid-August, days before the state’s district report cards were to be released to the public showing a surprisingly high score for Kansas City, a CEE-Trust partner shared his talking points with Nicastro and staff debunking the performance of a district where 70 percent of the students still perform below proficiency.

“It suggests a conspiracy against our success,” said Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green.

Even as Green and his cabinet gathered in Jefferson City on Sept. 4 with Nicastro and staff to plead Kansas City’s case for provisional accreditation and a reprieve from state intervention, emails show Nicastro had other plans.

Three weeks earlier at the Kauffman Foundation, unknown to Green, Nicastro had introduced her planning team to the person she selected to lead a potential statewide district — Norman Ridder, who is retiring as superintendent of Springfield’s public schools.

Such a district typically would operate many of the state’s low-performing schools, many of them likely in Kansas City.

“We’re after new ideas,” Nicastro told The Star on Friday. “It’s hard when people look backwards. We have to rethink how we teach children. What if we could start with a blank sheet of paper?”

The emails, obtained through a Sunshine Law request by the interfaith social justice organization MORE2 and shared with The Star, illustrate the fault line of public education’s divisive political landscape.

Kansas City, as with much of the nation, is torn between camps that see the splintering of urban public school systems into charter schools as the spark for innovation versus those that fear a descent into privatization and corporate exploitation.

The revelations follow on the heels of recent disclosures that showed Nicastro collaborated with an activist organization financed by multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield in crafting ballot language for a petition against teacher tenure.

Nicastro said that she and the department are neutral on the issue of tenure and that she was offering routine advice as she would with any organization or policy group — an explanation that was supported by state board president Peter Herschend.

On the CEE-Trust issue, MORE2 was concerned by the state’s partnership with the consultant and the outside funding from the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations, MORE2 executive director Lora McDonald said.

The organization pursued its request for the email records just to take a closer look, then was alarmed by what it found, she said.

“Who promises a job (to Ridder) before the job has been created?” she said.

The commissioner and the process, McDonald said, are “absolutely not trustworthy.”

The emails showed how the department, CEE-Trust and the foundations wanted CEE-Trust to be assigned the task by a memorandum of understanding, only to have the state board reject that approach.

But when the state instead went to a bidding process, the records show, it transferred the language of the memorandum of understanding into the bid specifications. State staff members who had collaborated with CEE-Trust on the original memorandum became part of the state’s evaluation team.

They ultimately awarded CEE-Trust the contract, even though an experienced Massachusetts-based agency had offered its services for a third of CEE-Trust’s bid.

“I think this whole process needs to halt,” McDonald said.

That would be a shame, said Ethan Gray, the executive director of CEE-Trust. His team since the summer has been digging into Kansas City data, considering it alongside research into successful urban schools around the country and trying to understand what conditions enabled that success, he said.

The knowledge gained from that process, he said, will be combined with new ideas coming from interviews this fall with local stakeholders to develop a Kansas City plan. It’s due in January, and a public debate would follow. Ultimately, any plan would have to be approved by the state school board.

“It’s an opportunity to step back and think of the conditions that make schools great,” Gray said. “It would be a detriment to the community if it does not have the opportunity to have that conversation.”

Winning the bid

Kansas City Public Schools has been unaccredited since January 2012. It was unaccredited once before, between 1999 and 2001, and has been provisionally accredited — never fully accredited — in the intervening years.

By the spring of 2013, Nicastro knew that new state law, which would take affect Aug. 28, would give the state the discretion immediately to begin a process that could restructure or take over unaccredited districts.

In an effort to avoid hasty fixes, Nicastro said, she wanted to explore systemic solutions that could be adapted for struggling school systems statewide.

The Kauffman Foundation, since its inception, has made education research and programming a pillar of its mission. Its practice has bent toward charter schools and the opening of its own charter school as the centerpiece of its education work.

In April, Aaron North, now Kauffman’s vice president of education, shared with Nicastro the foundation’s interest in backing a long-range, researched plan for Kansas City.

Nicastro, through events at the Kauffman Foundation, had also become aware of CEE-Trust and the agency’s 2010 work, “Opportunity Schools,” that proposed reforms for Indianapolis public schools.

The Hall Family Foundation also was brought in as a potential backer.

By May, the state staff was working with Gray on drafting a memorandum of understanding for a contract to begin work. By June, the team had added Parris Communications, led by Roshann Parris, to help plan how news of a CEE-Trust-led study would be launched.

But the state school board rejected the memorandum of understanding, putting the plan in a bind.

“My board raised a number of concerns, not the least of which is the fact that we were proposing to move forward with a group that was not identified through the typical process,” Nicastro wrote in an email to Gray.

She said she and her team would need time to reassess the situation, adding: “In the meantime the need for discretion and patience is critical.”

In early July, the state put the project out for bid, and the main text describing the expectations and scope of work mostly mirrored the language of the memorandum of understanding.

“I see this as an opportunity to do something more systemic, more comprehensive and more forward thinking,” Nicastro wrote July 15 in an email to St. Louis civic leaders.

She mentioned interest in states that have created special school districts, then said, “I also spoke with the Governor’s office about the same and I’m trying to convince him that creating an achievement district or something along those lines with an office dedicated to talent and an office dedicated to innovation/charter expansion could be his legacy.”

On Aug. 8, an email from the state to Gray informed him that CEE-Trust’s bid had been selected.

State administrators Margie Vandeven and Robin Coffman, who emails showed had helped craft the original memorandum of understanding with CEE-Trust, were two of four evaluators who scored the bids.

CEE-Trust edged the closest competitor — Community Training and Assistance Center, known as CTAC — by a single point, 70 to 69.

CTAC, because its bid of $124,700 was less than one-third of CEE-Trust’s $385,000 bid, earned the maximum 45 points under the major category of cost.

CEE-Trust earned the maximum 45 points under the other major heading, “Experience, reliability and expertise of personnel.”

CTAC received only 20 points for its personnel despite a proposal that described a 34-year history of assisting school systems in 40 states.

Team members included a former deputy commissioner in the New York State Education Department, a regional manager for EdisonLearning, an associate superintendent in California, and a former superintendent and special education director in California.

“That’s a section (personnel qualifications) that we usually knock out of the water,” said CTAC executive director William Slotnik, who had not been aware of the details of the scoring until he was reached by The Star.

CTAC didn’t appeal as much to the evaluators, Nicastro said, because its long experience had mostly been working within schools and school systems.

The department was looking for ways to reinvent the systems themselves, she said.

North, of the Kauffman Foundation, and Tracy Foster, vice president of the Hall Family Foundation, said Friday that both foundations are continuing their support and would have done so with whomever the state had selected in the bid process.

The state board approved CEE-Trust at its Aug. 20 meeting, and emails show the department and the partners had prepared responses regarding their choice and the process to come.

In an internal email Aug. 21 regarding media interview requests for Gray, Nicastro wanted him to tread carefully around the question of charter schools.

“He needs to know to take a ‘middle of the road’ and/or neutral position on charters,” she wrote. “Charters are fine as part of the solution; they are here and not going away. They must be high quality. They will try to paint them as the outsiders, funded with private money, determined to privatize all public education, yada yada.”

‘We had done everything right’

But the department and its partners also were bracing for another wrench in their Kansas City plans.

On Aug. 23, new state report cards were being made public, and the department knew that Kansas City Public Schools had managed to leap dramatically to a score at a provisional level.

The score is just an indicator. The state board makes accreditation decisions, usually according to the commissioner’s recommendations.

Nicastro made it clear that the department would need to see Kansas City sustain its growth for at least another year, possibly two, before she would recommend an accreditation change.

Many of the district’s points were earned for improvement that was tenuous. Too many students still scored less than proficient or advanced.

Superintendents of neighboring districts rallied in support of the district, as did many lawmakers, urging Nicastro and the state board to reward Kansas City for its improvement and its stability in leadership, finances and operations and give it provisional status.

The school leaders were spurred on by the threat of a pending Missouri Supreme Court ruling that could prompt students to transfer to the neighboring districts if Kansas City remains unaccredited.

Pressure mounted, but Nicastro and the state board denied Kansas City’s provisional request.

On seeing the narrative in the emails, Green said he is more certain that the district had little chance.

District leaders had been working closely with the state’s regional school improvement team, feeling the growing excitement as they saw the data developing that showed the district was going to reach a provisional score.

“We felt like we had done everything right,” Green said. “We thought it would be cause for celebration. … But from Jefferson City the response was lukewarm — like they wanted to dismiss what in other cities would be characterized as a dramatic turnaround.”