Education
9:17 pm
Mon December 9, 2013

Nicastro Faces Growing Criticism But Earns Vote Of Confidence

Despite a growing chorus for Chris Nicastro to leave her post as Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, the head of the state’s school board gave her a vote of confidence Monday and defended the selection of a consultant currently looking into the Kansas City schools.

Nicastro has come under fire in recent weeks, first for her consultation with an education advocacy group on its initiative petition that included changes in teacher tenure, then from a Kansas City Star story on Sunday.

That story included revelations from emails obtained by the Star that detailed the selection of CEE-Trust, based in Indianapolis, for a privately funded $385,000 contract to develop a long-range plan to improve schools in Kansas City.

Chris Nicastro
Credit DESE website

The story also said Nicastro was working on plans to create a statewide school district designed to intervene in poorly performing local districts and had even chosen someone to lead the effort, retiring Springfield Superintendent Norm Ridder.

In response to the story, Peter Herschend defended Nicastro, telling the Springfield News-Leader on Monday:

“The commissioner has my support and has the unquestioned support of the state Board of Education.”

Herschend also called Nicastro “the best agent for positive change for Missouri’s school students and Missouri’s schools in my 22 years on the state Board of Education.”

As Herschend made his statement on Monday afternoon, eight members of the Missouri General Assembly called on Nicastro to leave her post, either through resignation or dismissal by the state board of education.

In addition, the lawmakers’ statement said, “we are asking the state Board of Education to open an internal investigation into potential bid-rigging by Dr. Nicastro to ensure that an education department contract was granted to an organization she favors, despite the fact that its bid was more than three times more costly to taxpayers than the bid of the next closest competitor.”

Signing the statement were state Sens. Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City and Paul LeVota of the Kansas City area plus state Reps. Genise Montecillo, Bonnaye Mims, Judy Morgan, Ira Anders, John Mayfield and Joe Runions. All are Democrats.

Also calling for Nicastro’s ouster was John Hamilton, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Missouri. His statement said:

“Every Missouri taxpayer expects state officials to carry out their duties with integrity and good ethical values. It is, therefore, unacceptable that we see an electronic paper trail that reveals Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro has been running a tainted organization that relishes secrecy over transparency and ideology over what’s best for students.

“Nicastro clearly had a secret plan from the start to wipe the slate clean in Kansas City by using no-bid consultants favoring privatization and create a statewide school district — possibly using charters — of low-performing schools. This is not the way to run a state agency or improve the public schools of our state.”

Hamilton said the commissioner should be replaced “with someone of high ethical values who believes in integrity and a transparent government.”

Anger in Kansas City

The flurry of activity Monday followed the Kansas City Star story that alleged Nicastro was working against that city’s schools even as its evaluation score released this summer showed marked improvement.

Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said Nicastro’s activity “suggests a conspiracy against our success.”

The story detailed emails involving the selection of CEE-Trust to conduct the study of Kansas City schools even though, the story said, another agency submitted a lower bid.

It also said Nicastro was planning to create a so-called “achievement district” that would help struggling schools throughout the state and had even introduced Ridder, the retiring Springfield superintendent, to her planning team as the person who would lead it.

In response, Nicastro told the Star:

“We’re after new ideas. It’s hard when people look backward. We have to rethink how we teach children. What if we could start with a blank sheet of paper?”

In a statement released Monday by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Herschend defended the selection of CEE-Trust, saying the final decision was made by the state board in “an open and competitive bid process.”

He noted that a new state law gives DESE more authority to intervene in struggling districts, but, he said, “some groups are fighting even suggestions of change. Change is always hard and many will oppose change, but what we are doing now is not working.”

Herschend added:

“After more than 30 years of failure in Kansas City public schools, we need to seize this moment to have a community conversation about how we educate our kids. We ask that you reserve judgment before any plan has been formulated or even ideas discussed.”

Steps that might be needed to help underachieving school districts have drawn more attention this year since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law in June that said students who live in unaccredited districts may transfer to nearby accredited ones, with their home district paying the tuition and in some cases the transportation costs as well.

In St. Louis County, about 2,000 students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens have taken advantage of the law, putting financial pressure on those districts. Kansas City schools are also unaccredited, but a pending court case now before the state Supreme Court has forestalled any transfers.

Taking note of that situation, Herschend said in his statement:

“We know that everyone has an interest in improving Kansas City public schools as well as Normandy and Riverview Gardens in St. Louis. We must lay aside political differences and allegiances and come together to make schools work better for our kids. They deserve nothing less than our best efforts, and they deserve them now."

More email controversy

The criticism over the Kansas City contract and other issues there echoed an earlier controversy last month involving Nicastro’s involvement with an initiative petition being proposed by the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, a group funded largely by Rex Sinquefield.

According to emails obtained by the Associated Press, the commissioner provided advice to the group on the ballot measure, which would have limited teacher tenure in Missouri, among other things.

Teachers unions in the state said that such activity by Nicastro was inappropriate for someone in her position. She countered that she was only doing what she does whenever legislation could possibly affect DESE: Seeing what was involved and giving advice when asked.

"I think it's our responsibility to work with everybody," Nicastro told the AP.

In a joint statement, leaders from the state’s three leading teacher organizations criticized her actions.

“Government officials have a duty to act in an open and transparent manner for the benefit of the citizens of the state of Missouri,” they said. “Commissioner Nicastro’s actions fall short of that duty.”

In response, Nicastro said DESE was interested in another part of the initiative, involving the evaluation of teachers, not in the tenure provision.

“The department's interaction on this particular initiative focused on the state’s educator evaluation system, not teacher tenure,” she said. “We made it clear from the beginning that we did not have a position on tenure and would not weigh in on that topic.”

She added:

“As public servants, it is the duty of the commissioner and department staff to serve all of our constituents—not pick and choose groups that we will assist. Ultimately, we advocate for one group: the children of Missouri.”

AFT and SLPS

Though the Nicastro controversy was not directly addressed at a session called by Local 420 of the American Federation of Teachers Monday night, the issue of privatization of public education was a focal point.

The meeting, at Carr Lane school, was a call for “Reclaiming the Promise: Uniting for the St. Louis Public Schools.” Union officials said it was similar to meetings called in several cities around the country.

Speakers talked about the principles that unite supporters of public education, with an emphasis on how public schools must educate all children and help to build strong communities. 

Susan Turk, a former parent in the city schools and outspoken supporter of the system, told the audience that what is happening in Kansas City’s schools could be a harbinger of what occurs in St. Louis.

“The report that DESE is going to use to justify privatizing the Kansas City public schools is going to be used on the St. Louis Public Schools,” she said. “The best thing we can do is stand with Kansas City tooth and nail.”

Doris Walker McGahee, a long-time advocate for the city schools, added:

“Public education is under siege. All of these rich folks want to the public out of education.”

Mary Armstrong, president of Local 420, said in an interview before the meeting that she feels Nicastro is being influenced by “Republicans and Tea Partiers” in her views toward the public schools. She also wished that the commissioner would be more transparent in her dealings.

““There wouldn’t be a problem if she said this is her plan of action and this is where she wants to go, then presented it,” Armstrong said. “It wouldn’t look like a conspiracy.”

She praised Nicastro’s accessibility -- “We cannot criticize her for not being available to talk.” – but said she was worried by the information in the emails that have been recently made public.

“I really thought she was doing a good job until all these emails came out,” Armstrong said.

State Rep. Margo McNeil, D-Florissant, who attended the session, said she had been approached by the eight legislators who called for Nicastro’s ouster, but she wanted to wait and get more information before deciding her stance on the matter. She said she hopes to talk with the commissioner directly.

“I know a lot goes on behind the scenes that we don’t know about,” McNeil said,  “but I have a lot of questions."