Audit indicts the credibility of Missouri education agency

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green.
Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro and Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green. The Kansas City Star

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro should work tirelessly with public schools to ensure exceptional academic performance.

But a blistering state audit released Tuesday questions the credibility of the department and Nicastro. The audit is of a $385,000 contract awarded in 2013 to Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust to study the then-unaccredited Kansas City Public Schools.

However, the state effort was beset with problems from the start. The audit found that the department:

Didn’t ensure that the people selected to evaluate bids for the contract were independent and free of bias.

Accepted grants to finance the study of Kansas City schools from a foundation affiliated with CEE-Trust, a potential conflict of interest raising questions on the independence and objectivity of the report’s findings. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which funded the study with the Hall Family Foundation, was a founding member of CEE-Trust in 2010. The Star noted in December that Nicastro had been in communication with the Kauffman Foundation for months in 2013 and had hoped to hire CEE-Trust without a bid process.

Used documents prepared by the bid evaluation committee that didn’t support how CEE-Trust’s bid got a higher score. A competing bidder seemingly with more experience offered to study the chronic underperformance in struggling districts for a much lower cost.

The bungled bidding process “raises questions regarding the independence and objectivity of the report's findings,” the audit notes.

Fortunately, the state Board of Education didn’t back CEE-Trust’s plan to dismantle Kansas City Public Schools and replace it with a system of nonprofit school operators.

It’s also good that the district under Superintendent Steve Green’s leadership this month regained provisional accreditation. But Nicastro and the state education department will have to repair their credibility as they continue to work with unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts.

Meanwhile, Green and Kansas City school board members this week told The Star’s editorial board that the first week of school went well. Also, the district is implementing some of the CEE-Trust recommendations, such as expanding early childhood education and forming more partnerships.

The district is taking unprecedented steps to repair itself. The state needs to support — not get in the way of — such efforts.