Lawmakers call for investigation into bid process for school consultants

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro

Two days after a group of lawmakers called for the state’s chief education officer to resign, an overlapping group of Kansas City Democrats is asking the governor and the attorney general for an investigation.

The legislators were continuing to react to revelations in emails reported in The Star concerning the collaboration of Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, the CEE-Trust research group and two major foundations in preparing a long-range proposal for the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools.

The lawmakers contend the report shows what they described as “deceitful and questionable actions” in the bid process that awarded CEE-Trust the contract.

The state school board president, Peter Herschend, has defended the bidding process as open and competitive, and Wednesday added that renewed concerns about the potential impact of a student transfer law demonstrates the critical need for a better plan for Kansas City schools and other unaccredited districts.

The law, which allows students in unaccredited districts to transfer to neighboring districts at the cost of the failing district, was upheld Tuesday by the Missouri Supreme Court — sparking renewed determination among lawmakers and education officials to find remedies that don’t move students out of their communities.

“This is exactly why the State Board of Education is so committed to developing a comprehensive plan,” Herschend said in a written statement. “Moving children from one place to another is not the answer. It creates hardships for families and has the potential to destroy communities.”

In their call for an investigation, the lawmakers contend that the emails showed the education department was determined to set up the planning process with CEE-Trust, which was the favored company of the funders — the Kauffman Foundation and the Hall Family Foundation.

The lawmakers said Nicastro had assured them no decisions had been made regarding the future of the district, but they think the effort to work with CEE-Trust showed that the department was conferring with the “Kansas City business elite” and not with parents and representatives of the students.

The statement was signed by Reps. Gail McCann Beatty, John Rizzo, Randy Dunn, Jeremy LaFaver, Judy Morgan and Bonnaye Mims, and Sen. Kiki Curls — all Kansas City Democrats.

Spokespeople for the governor and the attorney general did not immediately reply to The Star regarding the request for an investigation.

The state board is scheduled to hear CEE-Trust’s proposal in January, and it intends to hear other proposals as well, including a plan from the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

“We want everyone’s voice to be heard,” Nicastro said in a written statement. “Public education is the foundation of a strong community. Our children deserve to have all of us focusing on how to ensure they have the quality schools they deserve.”

Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, defended Nicastro in a blog post Wednesday, saying that teacher unions and other established education groups that he says are threatened by the potential overhaul of the Kansas City school district have been driving most of the accusations against the commissioner.

“This is a pattern caused by the fact that the school board is not kowtowing to what special interests want,” Barnes told The Star. “And Commissioner Nicastro is the target of their enmity.”

The Kansas City District Advisory Committee, an organization of parents and community members, added its voice of concern Wednesday.

In a statement, the group recognized the need for change in achieving sustained improvement in Kansas City’s schools, but they fear the process underway with CEE-Trust was launched without adequate community input and transparency.

The group instead lent its support to the school improvement process that has been ongoing for two years between the district and the state’s regional school improvement team.