Updated 1:25 p.m. Wednesday with letter from MNEA president:
Amid indications that the Missouri state board of education may choose a new commissioner next week, school officials throughout the state have urged it to open up the process and consider a wider range of candidates.
The state board already has discussed in closed session the process to replace Chris Nicastro, who has announced her retirement as of the end of December. And the board has several more hours of closed session talks set for its meeting Monday and Tuesday in Jefferson City.
Board President Peter Herschend has said that because of all of the critical issues facing Missouri schools at this time, he sees no need to hold a national search, as is often done for an opening like the commissioner’s job. He was not available for comment Tuesday, but he told the Kansas City Star that he would like to see the board hold a closed session Monday afternoon, then vote on its choice for a new commissioner to hold the job full time, not on an interim basis.
“We have clear-stated objectives,” Herschend told the Star. “We know qualified men and women available today. We cannot afford to let education in Missouri go on cruise control for the four months of time it takes for a full-blown search.”
But that process doesn’t please administrators and others who have written Herschend and other board members, asking for a more open, more inclusive process to find Nicastro’s successor.
“We believe that if the State Board simply appoints a commissioner without a search process, they will create widespread pushback from the stakeholders as well as placing the new commissioner at a great disadvantage,” said a letter sent from St. Louis area superintendents who make up the legislative committee of EducationPlus.
“When high-level positions are filled without a search process, the person appointed almost always has to deal with internal and external criticism based only on the fact that there was not a search. For these reasons, among others, we think a search would better move forward the critical issues before the board and DESE. The outcome, we believe, will promote greater understanding and support of future educational policy and direction in the state.”
Don Senti, executive director of the group formerly known as Cooperating School Districts, said in an interview that for an enterprise as large as Missouri public schools, casting a wider net is the typical way to fill a vacancy at the top.
“For organizations, school districts, government positions, business positions, particularly positions of this magnitude, searches are conducted by boards and governing bodies,” Senti said. “I’m very surprised that our state board of education would not at least advertise the vacancy and consider all those that apply.”
Saying that it speaks for 62 school districts and 300,000 students, the EducationPlus letter urged the board to name an interim commissioner to step in when Nicastro leaves, then seek out internal and external candidates for her job. It said the board should solicit advice from a variety of groups concerned with the success of Missouri schools.
“Missouri's next commissioner of education must build trust with DESE's stakeholders,” the letter said. “These stakeholders would include the various teacher and administrative groups, including the MSBA and higher education, the legislature and the business community. That trust will come only by listening carefully and building consensus among all groups. Then going forward, the commissioner must foster a culture of internal and external collaboration.”
Echoing Herschend’s view that this is not the time to bring in someone from outside Missouri, state board member Victor Lenz of south St. Louis County said in an interview Tuesday that he doesn’t think a nationwide search for a new commissioner would be a good idea.
“We’ve got people in the state of Missouri who can do that job,” he said. “You know the intricacies of Missouri law and all of the things that we’re dealing with. Our biggest challenge is, of course, Normandy and Riverview and we just emerged a little bit from Kansas City, but there are 11 districts out there that are ready to fall into that same situation.
“We need somebody who understands where we are. To bring somebody in from the outside who has no understanding would put us way behind, in my estimation. We’ve got plenty of qualified people.”
Lenz said he did not expect the board to move as quickly as Herschend had indicated and name a new commissioner this coming week. He said that he has told anyone who asked him about the selection process to suggest whomever they think might make a good commissioner.
“I definitely don’t think we will be hiring a commissioner next Monday,” he said. “I don’t think that’s where we are right now.”
Roger Kurtz, who heads the Missouri Association of School Administrators, think that even with the press of issues like school transfers, the board needs to think more broadly about the pool of potential commissioner candidates.
“I don’t think hiring a new commissioner from outside the organization necessarily means a different direction for the organization,” he said. “It just provides them with a fresh opportunity to build the coalitions and the consensus that’s needed to solve some of the problems facing public education in Missouri.
“I don’t think it means a change in direction. I just think it means giving a fresh look at those issues from somebody with a little different perspective.”
And Charles Smith, the president of the Missouri branch of the National Education Association, said in a letter to members of the state board that it needs to conduct a broader search to bring some diversity to top leadership at DESE, which is now all white.
"Current DESE leadership does not reflect the diversity that we see in the populations feeding into the school districts of Normandy, Riverview Gardens, St. Louis Public Schools, and Kansas City," said Smith, who is African-American. "DESE's lack of diversity in its own decision makers stands in stark contrast to the diversity represented in the districts subject to DESE intervention or management.
"Many parents, students, and educators from these communities look at DESE's senior staff and see a group that does not look like them or share their life experiences. I hope the State Board of Education will work to appoint leadership that reflects the diversity of the districts with which DESE is most engaged."
The question of whether a public board can discuss the process for replacing a commissioner in closed session, as opposed to discussing individual candidates, is unclear.
Asked recently about the issue, Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an email:
“The board can discuss personnel issues in closed session, including the process for replacing personnel. They can also confer with legal counsel in closed session about personnel matters. State board members welcome input on what qualities the next commissioner should possess and suggestions for who that person should be. They have been receiving plenty of input on this decision from around the state.”
But when asked the question about whether such discussion complies with provisions of the Missouri open meetings act, Lenz acknowledged uncertainty.
“I am very aware of the Sunshine Law,” he said, “and I would be the first person sitting there in the room saying, wait a minute, guys, we can’t go there. I had never even thought about that. In a private conversation, individually with each other, we talk about process. We talk about all kinds of things. But that’s not a meeting, in any way, shape or form.
“We probably need to consider that: Can we talk about the process in a private meeting, or does that have to come out in the public. I will keep that most definitely in mind.”
On Wednesday, Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, sent this email about Sunshine Law concerns:
"We have conferred with DESE and confirmed that the contexts of the closed sessions were either a discussion with counsel about statutory and constitutional parameters related to the appointment of a Commissioner of Education or consideration of the appointment of a specific candidate or candidates."
Mike Jones of St. Louis, the board’s vice president, called discussion by the board “still fluid about what is the best way to resolve the leadership process issue.
“Peter has a definite point of view, but as of right now, my last understanding is that we still haven’t made an ultimate decision about how that process will take place.”
But he too said that he would not want selection of a new commissioner to interfere with policies being carried out now.
“The board is very well invested in a policy direction and a set of initiatives that haven’t fully played themselves out,” Jones said. “One of the things I would actively consider in finalizing any leadership is what is our commitment to direction in which we are headed.
“One of the things you get potentially when you change leadership is you end up starting all over again. I would argue there are districts in Missouri, particularly in St. Louis, that don’t have the luxury or the time for somebody to come in and start all over again…. I would be troubled by a process that put us in a position where we’re now starting all over again.”
So would he be surprised if a commissioner is named next week?
“After 30 years in public life,” Jones said, “I’m never surprised by anything. I think that’s why you come to the meetings.”