Updated 5:01 p.m. with reaction, more details.
Chris Nicastro, whose sometimes controversial tenure as Missouri’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education has been marked by efforts to improve urban schools and the transfer program out of Normandy and Riverview Gardens, announced Monday she will retire at the end of the year.
Nicastro, 63, who became Missouri’s fifth education commissioner in 2009, said she will work with the state board of education to find her successor. But, she added, it is a good opportunity for a change in leadership at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“I believe strongly that this is the time to take stock, fine-tune programs and practices we’ve put in place, and work closely with stakeholders throughout the state to imbed and implement with fidelity,” Nicastro said in a statement released by DESE.
“This is exactly the right time both personally and professionally for a change in leadership. I will work closely with the state board and the team to ensure a smooth transition and will be available in the coming months and years as necessary. I will always be a relentless public education advocate in whatever role the future holds.”
Talking with reporters at a meeting of the State Board of Education, Nicastro said she had no regrets about how she did her job:
“Could things have been done differently … or made things less cumbersome or messy? Absolutely, I never pretended to be perfect. I don’t think any leader is, but the actions that we took, in every case, were the appropriate things to do.”
In a letter to superintendents throughout the state, she explained her decision this way:
“My family – Charlie, my kids and grandkids – in St. Louis have long been begging me to come home. At this point in life it has become apparent that after almost 40 years it’s time for me to devote far more of my attention to them. They have been patient, and, as you well know, patience is not a prominent family trait!”
Peter Herschend of Branson, president of the state board, praised her work on behalf of Missouri’s students.
““The State Board of Education is grateful for her years of service to education, but even more important is the better life she has worked to achieve for hundreds of thousands of Missouri's students,” Herschend said in the DESE statement.
“Most of those children will never know Chris Nicastro. But those of us involved in this business of education know, and we are all appreciative of her tireless service.”
It is the state board, whose members are appointed by the governor, that will hire Nicastro’s successor. In her letter to superintendents, she said that “the leadership team we have assembled in the department represents some of the brightest, most capable leaders with whom I’ve ever worked. Their dedication and talent is the reason for any success we have achieved in recent years. They, too, will need your ongoing help to continue their good work.”
Gov. Jay Nixon said in a statement Monday about Nicastro’s retirement:
“For nearly four decades, Commissioner Nicastro has dedicated her career to improving public schools and helping students succeed. The progress Missouri’s public schools have made during her tenure as commissioner is a testament to her unwavering commitment to providing every Missouri child with a high quality education that prepares them to meet the demands of the global economy.”
In June, when he announced his veto of the school transfer bill passed by the General Assembly, Nixon was asked to evaluate Nicastro’s performance. He called her an “active and able participant in very challenging issues, and I appreciate her energy and commitment.”
Asked a week or so later about that assessment, Nicastro replied:
“I was very pleased. I appreciate very much the governor’s support. He and his office have been very supportive partners through this entire enterprise, and we’ll continue to work closely with them and others as we go forward.”
Criticism and controversy
In recent years, Nicastro had become a lightning rod for education controversies in Missouri.
Under her tenure, back in 2010, the Wellston school district was dissolved after many years of substandard achievement and attached to Normandy, which itself was having academic difficulties.
Four years later, after Normandy was unaccredited and about 25 percent of the district’s students students took advantage of a state law to transfer to accredited districts, Normandy itself lapsed and was taken over by the state as the Normandy Schools Collaborative. Critics have said Normandy’s further decline was inevitable when it had to take on the Wellston students; at the time, Nicastro said Normandy making progress toward improvement and had strong leadership in place.
Also in 2010, the state board accepted Nicastro’s recommendation to put the Riverview Gardens school district – where Nicastro had once been superintendent – under the control of a three-member appointed special administrative board. As with the Normandy Schools Collaborative earlier this year, all contracts in Riverview Gardens lapsed and the district was considered a new one.
While Riverview Gardens has shown some improvement in its state evaluation, it remains in unaccredited territory. While the state school board has designated the new Normandy as accredited as a state oversight district, its scores in the recently announced state evaluation were the lowest in the state and were actually lower than the year before.
Nicastro also drew criticism for the way DESE and the state board handled a contract for a group known as CEE-Trust, which put together a report on how the Kansas City schools could be improved. Word that members of the DESE staff had worked on the CEE-Trust proposal brought calls last December from lawmakers and others for Nicastro to resign.
A state audit released last month found flaws in the bidding process that resulted in CEE-Trust getting the contract.
Assessing her own tenure, Nicastro said in her letter to the superintendents:
“Though the work is never done, we have launched a number of ambitious programs and have instituted a number of systemic changes that I believe will alter the course of public education for years to come. I can’t thank you enough for your own efforts to make sure public education thrived through what has arguably been the most difficult time in state government and public education for decades.”
In fact, Nicastro told reporters, controversies have never deterred her. “If anything, that would probably make me less likely to leave right now," she said. "While certainly no one likes to be criticized, my focus is so much on trying to do what’s best for kids, that becomes almost part of the background noise.”
Prior to becoming commissioner, Nicastro served as superintendent of the Hazelwood school district as well as Riverview Gardens, both in north St. Louis County.
Under her leadership, the state developed the fifth version of its school evaluation plan, known as MSIP5, which just released its second year of data. She also helped formulate a detailed intervention plan that lays out when state education officials become involve in local districts that are struggling.
Overall, Nicastro championed a program known as Top 10 by 20, which was aimed at having Missouri schools rank in the top 10 nationally by the year 2020.
In the most recent scores, 56.6 percent of the state’s school districts raised their annual evaluation scores from the previous year. But overall, the rate of proficiency in English, math and social studies fell this year compared with 2013.
One of Nicastro’s most vocal critics in the legislature has been state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal. The University City Democrat, who also sits on that city’s school board, introduced a bill this past session that would have changed the way the education commissioner was chosen. She also introduced what is called a “remonstrance,” or formal statement of protest, calling on Nicastro to resign.
Upon hearing Monday's news, she Tweeted:
"Congratulations, Missouri! Chris Nicastro is GONE!"
In an interview Monday, Chappelle-Nadal called Nicastro’s retirement “the best decision.”
Citing the outcome of the Normandy-Wellston merger and other decisions, she said the commissioner has been “highly political and manipulative” in her job, making different statements to different groups.
“It’s been an issue of trust,” she said. “She’s seen the writing on the wall and it was time for her to go.”
Asked if she thought Nixon had forced Nicastro out, Chappelle-Nadal – who also has had harsh words for Nixon over the transfer bill and other issues -- said:
“I thought the governor was hiding behind her.”
William Humphrey, who served as the last president of the elected Normandy school board before it was dissolved on June 30, said he was glad to see Nicastro go. “I just wish she had left earlier,” he said.
Humphrey said he thought DESE under Nicastro had made decisions that will put roadblocks in the way of Normandy’s future success and should not have put the district under the control of an appointed board.
“A lot of things that DESE did were the direct result of a lack of planning on their part,” he said in an interview “They came into the district without a plan.
“I think the approach she took was the wrong approach. They had an elected school board that understood school governance. They did not take the time on the front end to do a proper assessment of what was working and what was not working. They just came in unilaterally and wanted to replace everything.”
Other assessments were more positive. In a statement, Carter Ward, the executive director of the Missouri School Boards Association, said:
“Commissioner Nicastro has been a fearless advocate for improving student achievement in school districts throughout the state. During her time as commissioner, she has led the effort to raise academic standards in our state and focused attention on providing a quality education for all of Missouri’s public school students. The impact of her leadership will be felt for many years to come.”
But the heads of teachers unions in the state's two largest cities -- Mary Armstrong of St. Louis and Andrea Flinders of Kansas City, had a more negative view, saying in a statement:
“Missouri’s students deserve an education commissioner committed to integrity, transparency and an education approach that provides the greatest opportunity for a bright future. We have been disappointed in Commissioner Nicastro’s dealings with for-profit groups that want to privatize our public education system. Our hope is that the next education commissioner will work collaboratively with teachers, parents and other community leaders on a what-works, evidence-based approach to reclaim the promise of public education in Missouri and prepare our students well for career, college and life.”