3 top administrators leaving troubled KC district

KANSAS CITY (AP) — Three top administrators for Kansas City Public Schools are following the former superintendent to Michigan, while the Missouri education commissioner has reportedly warned of the changes coming as the district loses its state accreditation.

John Covington, who left Kansas City in August to take a job leading a new Michigan agency overseeing that state’s poorest-performing schools, said Thursday that Rebecca Lee-Gwin, MiUndrae Prince and Mary Esselman are among 10 people joining his team. One day earlier, the Kansas City district announced the trio was leaving. Lee-Gwin had overseen the Kansas City district’s finances, Prince its academics and Esselman its curriculum.

“This is an extremely strong team that will be able to do the heavy lifting that has to be done to get the Education Achievement System up and running by next September,” Covington, the Michigan agency’s chancellor, said in a written statement.

The three departing Kansas City administrators didn’t immediately respond to email messages. None had listed home numbers.

Their departure is just the latest blow to the district and prompted claims that Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro spooked top-level administrators when she met with them about three weeks ago. Kansas City Public Schools board member Arthur Benson said Nicastro had asked interim superintendent Steve Green to leave the room before warning senior staff they had no job security.

“I hope that we don’t lose more staff members,” Benson said, noting that the district has been criticized for a lack of stable leadership. “That instability can undermine even the best plans for improving teaching and learning. Because of those reasons, it’s especially troubling to me that the commissioner of education causes the very instability that the school board is sometimes blamed for.”

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the email that Kansas City district chief of staff Chace Ramey sent to Green recapping what Nicastro said senior leadership would face after the district’s loss of accreditation takes effect Jan. 1. State law would give the district more than two years to regain its accreditation before facing the prospect of a state takeover. But some lawmakers want to make changes earlier. Possibilities that have been discussed include breaking up the district or shrinking the number of school board members.

In the Nov. 1 email, Ramey quoted Nicastro as warning that if a special administrative board was appointed to lead the district “the dynamics of the situation would change dramatically.”

“The interpersonal relationships within the team and between the team and the other players have already changed and will continue to until some ‘permanent’ stability is established,” the email said, quoting Nicastro. “As I said, I respect your group. My comment can come in the ‘for what it’s worth’ or ‘motherly’ advice ... that’s all. You need to be prepared individually and collectively.”

Michele Clark, the spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an email that Nicastro has encouraged school staff to “stay together, stay on task, and keep the focus on kids.” The commissioner will be in Kansas City for meetings early next week as officials consider “the best possible course of action” for students in the district.

Green said the departing cabinet members told him a variety of things led to their decision to leave, including the uncertainty that surrounds the district’s loss of accreditation. He said he met Wednesday night with remaining top-level administrators to offer reassurance.

“They are moving on,” Green told them, “and we need to move on, too.”

He said cabinet officials have been encouraged to each train a backup person to take over if necessary. He said those backup people will get a chance to make their case for a permanent position. As for the broader uncertainty, he is trying not to focus on it.

“I have pretty much told my team and principals that the winds are going to swing a variety of different ways and we cannot get caught up in that,” Green said. “We need to maintain our focus in a laser-like way on students, and their achievement and the road to accreditation. So I’ve pretty much disengaged from that dynamic that continues to unfold in that regard. I cannot afford the time and energy that is put into that because it could become a distraction that this district can’t afford right now.”

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