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Tension ebbs on Missouri plan for struggling school districts

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro The Kansas City Star

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro knew before the audience questions came Monday night that the state’s draft plan for intervening in struggling school districts lacks many details.

Much work still needs to be done to satisfy people like Kansas City Public Schools parent Daisy Price who stood at the microphone and said, “I challenge the state — where are the specifics?”

But this is no longer a Kansas City-specific plan the state is building, but a broad framework to guide potential state intervention wherever it is faced with a struggling or failing school district, Nicastro said after the hearing.

“These questions (in public feedback) are going to help us,” she said. “I understand the need for less ambiguity, but (the plan) has to be flexible — and those don’t always go together.”

Originally, the commissioner had imagined the education department would start with an intervention plan for Kansas City, which the state would use to inform how it intercedes in other situations.

Instead, the department is proposing its general statewide approach, and giving Kansas City the chance to improve its performance and evade any state takeover if it can score at a provisional range again when state report cards are released this summer.

The potential reprieve lowered the tension in Monday night’s hearing at the Metropolitan Community Colleges-Penn Valley compared to the higher-stakes anxiety that brought more than 200 people to Paseo Academy Jan. 29 to speak out on intervention plans.

The department unveiled its draft proposal at the state school board meeting Feb. 18, with the intention of bringing back a refined version for a potential vote at the next meeting, now scheduled for March 21.

The state reviewed its plan again with Monday’s audience.

The proposal emphasizes earlier state attention as districts, or schools within districts, show signs of struggle.

The state’s proposal retains a full range of options for intervention in unaccredited districts, including working with the elected board under performance contracts, seating an appointed board, or voiding all contracts and changing the entire district structure.

Districts that fail to rise out of unaccreditation would be dissolved and taken over by the state. At that point, schools could be turned over to neighboring districts or placed under a collaborative supporting a network of independent schools as proposed by CEE-Trust.

The state has published its plan and is taking feedback at

www.dese.mo.gov/unaccredited-districts

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