KC groups call on state to pull plug on CEE-Trust study

Five community and school organizations alarmed over a planning process to change Kansas City’s public education system joined forces Thursday to try to bring it to a halt.

They are petitioning the Missouri state school board to end a state-commissioned study — financed by the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations — that they fear will only damage the school district, which they say is finally stable and improving.

They have no confidence in the state’s plan and the bidding process that gave the study to Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust.

They called on the state board instead to continue a collaborative improvement process between the district and a state team over the past two years that coincided with a dramatic rise in the district’s score on the state’s report card in August.

The district has secure leadership and a cooperating school board, and it has been earning positive reviews from the state’s improvement team, said Jennifer Wolfsie, a member of the school district’s parent and community advisory committee.

For the state to “undermine” that progress, Wolfsie said, “seems disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst.”

She was joined by representatives for Communities Creating Opportunity, the Kansas City teachers union, the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equality, and the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP.

The education department, in a written statement later Thursday, said both the CEE-Trust study process and the work between the district and the state team should continue.

“We feel it’s important to keep the conversation going with the community about improving the district through all of the various proposals as well as the (school improvement team) process,” the statement said.

One school district watchdog group — Do the Right Thing for Kids — is supporting the CEE-Trust study. Do the Right Thing for Kids thinks that the groups resisting Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and CEE-Trust’s work are protecting a failed education system.

“It’s time to quit messing around with technicalities and get on with figuring out what we need to do,” said Bill Eddy, a former Kansas City school board member and leader of Do the Right Thing for Kids.

“The CEE-Trust contract threatens the status quo,” Eddy said. “I think it’s time we damn well do that.”

The district’s improvement on its state report card reflected gains in areas outside of test performance, such as attendance, graduation rate, and career and technical education programming. The district saw some improvement in mathematics and science, but not in English language arts.

Even with some gains, 70 percent of the students in the district did not perform at a proficient level.

The community should be open to consider whatever proposal CEE-Trust provides, Eddy said. The Democratic lawmakers and others who want the state to investigate for potential bid-rigging in the selection of CEE-Trust are making a “mountain out of a molehill,” Eddy’s group said in its statement.

“As best as we can tell,” Eddy said, “(Nicastro) did not violate any legal or state regulations.”

Email conversations and records reported by The Star showed that Nicastro and the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations wanted to direct CEE-Trust to do the work and avoid going through a bidding process.

Nicastro originally asked CEE-Trust to apply to do the study by filing a letter asserting it was the only source qualified to do the work. But the company did not want to try that, emails showed, because if anyone challenged the claim, it would automatically trigger a bid process.

CEE-Trust Executive Director Ethan Gray told The Star that he was eager to get started on what promised to be a complex project with a tight end-of-the-year deadline.

“We had no interest in avoiding a bid process,” he said. “We had an interest in beginning the project as quickly as possible.”

The education department instead drafted a memorandum of understanding with CEE-Trust to assign it the work. The state school board, however, rejected that process and directed the department to put the work up for bid. The language in the memorandum became the basis of the bid specifications.

Department administrators who had worked with CEE-Trust in drafting the memorandum of understanding were also part of the state’s team that scored the bids.

Three other companies bid for the job, all at substantially less cost than CEE-Trust’s bid. The department is not required to pick the lowest bidder. It used a scoring system that considered cost, but gave the highest score, by a single point, to CEE-Trust.

Nicastro told The Star that the department chose CEE-Trust because its bid reflected the kind of approach favored by the department — one of exploring ideas to reinvent the education system that supports struggling schools, rather than trying to improve the existing system.

Eddy supported the commissioner’s approach, saying, “Interventions in a sick system are never going to help.”

District parents Wolfsie and Jamekia Kendrix said they feared that the district is at risk of being thrown into another round of turmoil.

“I understand that some people are looking at this through a 30- or 40-year lens,” Wolfsie said. “But most of them don’t have children in the district, and they don’t see how drastically it has changed the last two years.”

“Listen to the people it’s impacting,” Kendrix said. “This is my child. This is my child’s future.”