Missouri's top education official is increasingly becoming a flash point as the state wrestles with how to address its most troubled schools.
The pressure on Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro rose another notch yesterday as lawmakers and others criticized the way the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education hired a consultant to develop a turn-around plan for Kansas City Public Schools and other struggling systems across the state.
Their concerns followed the release of emails and a Sunday story in the Kansas City Star that showed Nicastro had been talking with a firm supportive of charter schools for several months before the Missouri Board of Education awarded it a contract to develop the Kansas City school improvement plan.
The firm, Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust, which stands for Cities for Educational Entrepreneurship, received the contract despite costing three times more than the next-highest bidder. The department attempted to hire the consultant without bids but then solicited other proposals after the Missouri Board of Education raised concerns about circumventing the typical process.
State board President Peter Herschend defended the hiring of CEE-Trust as "open and competitive."
"After more than 30 years of failure in" Kansas City schools, "we need to seize this moment to have a community conversation about how we educate our kids," he wrote in a statement. "We ask that you reserve judgment before any plan has been formulated or even ideas discussed."
The emails, obtained through the Open Meetings and Records Law, or Sunshine Law, by an interfaith social organization called More2 and provided to the Post-Dispatch, offer a glimpse into Nicastro's support for creating a statewide district that would operate some of the state's lowest-performing schools — a concept supported by many school superintendents.
The emails show that Nicastro met in August with Norm Ridder, the retiring superintendent of Springfield schools, about the establishiment of this special school district and the possibility of his leading the transition.
They also show that the department's determination to craft a new plan for the unaccredited Kansas City schools didn't waver, even when the district posted its best academic gains in years. The district's annual performance report in August put it in range of provisional accreditation.
In January, Nicastro is expected to present a long-range plan to the state Board of Education on how to address struggling schools. It will fold in recommendations from CEE-Trust and perhaps from school superintendents and school-choice advocates.
Also next month, lawmakers will begin debating potential changes to the school transfer law, which is allowing 2,200 children in the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts to attend higher-performing schools. Normandy and Riverview Gardens are footing the bills.
At a gathering yesterday in north St. Louis County, some members of Metropolitan Congregations United said they've become increasingly disenchanted with Nicastro and the direction the state is heading in addressing the problems of struggling school districts.
The $385,000 contract with CEE-Trust is fully funded by the Kauffman Foundation and Hall Family Trust — two groups that are supportive of charter schools.
"They're totally about privatization," said Carolyn Randazzo, a former teacher who attended yesterday's rally. "Schools are not businesses and cannot be run as businesses."
A storm has been developing around Nicastro for weeks.
Late last month, other emails obtained by the Missouri National Education Alliance showed Nicastro had been consulting with Kate Casas, the state policy director for the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri, about how to craft a ballot initiative petition aimed at eliminating teacher tenure. Rex Sinquefield, the billionaire investor and school choice advocate, is a primary backer of the alliance.
The revelation led Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, and state Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis, to call for Nicastro's resignation. Yesterday, six more lawmakers joined them and called for an investigation into "potential bid-rigging" by Nicastro.
"It is imperative that she resign immediately as state education commissioner or, if she fails to do so, be removed from her post by the Missouri State Board of Education," said the statement signed by Montecillo; LeVota; Rep. Bonnaye Mims, D-Kansas City; Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City; Rep. Judy Morgan, D-Kansas City; Rep. John Mayfield, D-Independence; Rep. Ira Anders, D-Independence; and Rep. Joe Runions, D-Grandview.
Chapelle-Nadal has filed legislation that would allow the Senate to fire the education commissioner with a two-thirds vote. Such a change would require a statewide vote to alter the Missouri Constitution. Currently, Nicastro works for the Missouri Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor.
But others came to Nicastro's defense yesterday.
At the rally, Rep. Tommie Pierson, D-St. Louis County, said the transfer situation and funding problems had created a tough political environment for Nicastro.
"A lot of my colleagues are calling for her dismissal," he said. "I hope she weathers this storm."
Herschend suggested the attacks were political. The board urged Nicastro last year "to act swiftly to institute change in unaccredited school districts," Herschend wrote, "but some groups are fighting even suggestions of change."
He said something different was needed. "Change is always hard, and many will oppose change, but what we are doing now is not working."