Lawmakers call for query into Nicastro

KANSAS CITY (AP) — A group of state lawmakers from Kansas City on Wednesday called for the governor and attorney general to investigate concerns about Missouri’s education commissioner.

The eight lawmakers were the second group this week to formally complain about Education Commission Chris Nicastro after The Kansas City Star reported on newly disclosed emails that raise questions about the selection of CEE-Trust as a consultant. One of the main complaints is that the Indianapolis-based firm’s bid for developing an improvement plan for the Kansas City district and other struggling schools was nearly three times higher than the closest competitor. The Kauffman Foundation and the Hall Family Foundation are bankrolling the contract.

Nicastro has not responded to the calls for an investigation into her.

It’s the second time in recent weeks that Nicastro has faced criticism. Last month, some lawmakers called for her resignation after emails showed that she interacted with a group developing a ballot proposal that would end teacher tenure and require that student performance guide employment decisions.

The Star’s story on the consultant was based on emails that the interfaith social justice organization MORE2 obtained through an open records request. The story also revealed that as the unaccredited Kansas City district was preparing to make its pitch to get partial accreditation, Nicastro was moving in another direction. Behind-the-scenes she was promoting a statewide district that would operate some of Missouri’s lowest-performing schools.

The Kansas City district, which ultimately failed to receive an accreditation upgrade, could begin to see its students taking advantage of a state law to transfer to accredited school systems as soon as this fall, unless the Legislature makes changes before then.

“Commissioner Nicastro has repeatedly assured lawmakers that no decisions had been made regarding the future of the district, but that apparently is not the case,” a statement Wednesday from the eight lawmakers said. “She told us she would keep us informed on the situation, but that has not happened.”

Gov. Jay Nixon said Monday that it’s a good time for the state Board of Education to “monitor and evaluate” concerns raised about Nicastro. That same day, a different group of Democratic lawmakers issued a written statement accusing Nicastro of abusing her power and asked the state school board to open an internal investigation of the bidding process.

But the statement released Wednesday noted that there are no Kansas City representatives on the state board and said a “full investigation by an unbiased and independent outside entity is necessary to foster public confidence.”

Missouri State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in a written statement Wednesday that the state board is scheduled to discuss various ideas for working with struggling schools at its January meeting and that there will be several opportunities for public feedback afterward.

“We want everyone’s voice to be heard,” Nicastro said in the statement. “Public education is the foundation of a strong community. Our children deserve to have all of us focusing on how to ensure they have the quality schools they deserve.”

The emails involving the ballot proposal, which were obtained by the Missouri National Education Association in response to a records request and provided to The Associated Press, show Nicastro met with an advocate of the initiative more than a year ago, suggested specific wording and reviewed a final draft.

In a letter last month to three education organizations, Nicastro said the department focused on the educator evaluation system and made clear it had no position on teacher tenure.

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