KC school district sues Missouri to prevent breakup and loss of students

Kansas City Public Schools sued Missouri education officials Friday to prevent the state from breaking up the underachieving school system and to stave off the possible exodus of students.

Filed in Cole County Circuit Court, the lawsuit names the Missouri Board of Education and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as defendants.

It asks for an injunction while the case is being heard that would give the unaccredited district provisional accreditation. That status would prevent parents from transferring their children to neighboring districts next school year at the cost of the Kansas City district.

A Missouri Supreme Court ruling this week upheld the law that allows transfers from unaccredited districts. Critics of the law say it undermines the financial stability of unaccredited districts, leading to bankruptcy and a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

Friday’s lawsuit further seeks to keep that provisional accreditation until the next accreditation cycle and to prevent the state from taking any steps to dismantle the district.

The district maintains that its overall score improved enough this year to be well within the provisional range.

But the state board, on the advice of Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro, ignored district achievements and denied provisional status in October, according to the suit.

The state justified the decision by saying most of those advances were not related to academic improvements. Seventy percent of students did not perform at a proficient level, according to a state report card.

The suit alleges other motives. Provisional status would have undermined an alleged secret plan by Nicastro to dissolve the district, which has struggled for decades to boost academic achievement.

The district lost provisional status soon after Kansas City superintendent John Covington quit to take another job in August 2011. It was that sudden resignation, the suit says, that convinced Nicastro the district could not make a turnaround on its own.

She then “began working covertly to orchestrate a breakup of (the district) into charter schools,” according to the suit.

Nicastro did not make herself available for comment Friday morning. Her spokeswoman said at the time that the department would be issuing a statement later in the day, but it never did.

State board chairman Peter Herschend did not respond to requests for comment.

In a written statement, the Kansas City district said the denial of provisional accreditation, coupled with the transfer policy court ruling, would do “irreparable harm.”