Area superintendents will enter new year with shaken confidence

Stephen Green, Kansas City Public Schools chief, listened to Chris Nicastro, Missouri education commissioner, during a 2011 school board meeting.
Stephen Green, Kansas City Public Schools chief, listened to Chris Nicastro, Missouri education commissioner, during a 2011 school board meeting. Star file photo

Area school superintendents and Missouri’s chief education officer are heading into a profoundly uncertain new year needing to repair a damaged relationship.

A potentially devastating student transfer law, a pending Kansas City lawsuit and a controversial project to reform the way Missouri deals with failing schools all weigh upon the fate of public education in 2014.

Do the superintendents trust Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro to serve their best interests in the drama ahead?

Blue Springs Superintendent Paul Kinder summed up their answer: “No.”

Kinder was one of six superintendents who met with The Star’s editorial board this week to talk about their ideas and their concerns.

The others were North Kansas City’s Todd White, Kansas City’s Steve Green, Independence’s Dale Herl, Raytown’s Allan Markley and Center’s Bob Bartman.

“The proof” behind their shaken confidence, Herl said, “is in what surfaced.”

They were talking about the information in emails and state records, reported by The Star, that showed Nicastro’s desire to work with Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust to develop a plan to dramatically reform the operation of struggling schools, starting with a look at Kansas City. The work is being funded by the Kauffman and Hall Family foundations.

The problem for the superintendents, they said, is that this alliance had worked for several months without the knowledge of the Kansas City superintendent or any of the other superintendents.

In their eyes, it doesn’t help matters that the Kauffman Foundation and CEE-Trust historically have supported well-run public charter schools as a key strategy in education reform — hitting one of education’s hot-button issues.

Meanwhile, the superintendents think their own proposal for helping struggling schools, signed Nov. 4 by 20 superintendents with the Missouri Association of School Administrators, has received little attention from the state.

“We don’t want to sit idly by and let an outside group decide what’s best for our schools and communities,” White said. “To sit idly by is untenable.”

A draft of the CEE-Trust proposal is due to the state board in January. Education board president Peter Herschend has said previously that the board will open a discussion on the plan — as well as the superintendents’ plan and any others — at that time.

“Some groups are fighting even suggestions of change,” he said earlier this month.

Ever since the state board decided in October 2011 that Kansas City Public Schools would become unaccredited in January 2012, Nicastro has talked about her desire to see a long-range plan to rethink the future of the district.

The department chose CEE-Trust to develop a plan, even though other bidders offered to do the work at a third of the cost, because CEE-Trust shared the department’s vision of looking to reinvent the education system, Nicastro said.

The planners have promised a unique plan tailored to Kansas City. They began interviewing interested groups, including superintendents, in October.

But the emails from Nicastro dating to April show she has an interest in charter school expansion that the superintendents think may be influencing the planning process’s direction.

Nicastro has said the department is neutral on charter schools.

The superintendents collaborated on their proposal, seeking in part to show a way to give all students a successful public school choice without transfers between districts, but also to try to secure a seat at the table in the growing schools debate.

The superintendents’ plan calls for more review teams to help struggling districts. Schools within districts would receive individual reviews, and students would be allowed to transfer from unaccredited buildings to accredited buildings within their district.

Districts that continue to struggle would have their unaccredited schools taken under the management of a separate Achievement School District.

If a district were to continue to perform below the provisional level for five years, the state board could declare the district lapsed and turn its schools over to be operated by neighboring districts, as already allowed by Missouri law.

The aim, White said, is to keep the public school at “the epicenter” of its community.

Student transfers are on — or not

The trouble over the student transfer law figures to get worse before it gets better — if it ever gets better.

With a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling upholding the law, area superintendents said their districts need to begin accommodating families who want to transfer out of the unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools for the 2014-2015 school year.

But the legal limbo isn’t over.

Kansas City has sued the state school board, saying the district should be granted provisional accreditation.

It also is seeking an injunction to be declared temporarily provisional while the suit is pending.

If the district were declared provisional, the transfer law would no longer apply. Any families who might be preparing to change districts would be turned back.

This is new and troubling territory for districts, including Kansas City, trying to plan staffing and services for 2014-2015.

The law says only that students in unaccredited districts can transfer to another district in the same or adjoining county, with tuition and transportation to be paid by the unaccredited district.

The state has offered guidelines that suggest districts request families to make known by Feb. 1 their intentions to transfer in August.

But here are things that district superintendents can hardly predict:

No one knows how many families would want to transfer. There have been few inquiries so far. But a survey conducted for a previous court case suggested there could be thousands.

Lawmakers who return to session in early January have said that amending the law is an urgent priority, but it will be a tall order in the politicized market of education ideas to push any of a slew of bills to law before schools need to plan for next school year.

Kansas City Public Schools filed its petition for provisional accreditation Dec. 13, and the Missouri attorney general’s office doesn’t have to file its response for the state until Jan. 15. The hearing and trial process could take months. And the outcome, of course, is unknown.