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2 Dems urge Missouri education official to resign

By CHRIS BLANK

Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Two Democratic state lawmakers called Tuesday for the resignation of Missouri's education commissioner, alleging she has "demonstrated a troubling tendency to abuse power."

Emails show Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro interacted with a group developing a ballot proposal that would end teacher tenure and require that student performance guide employment decisions.

In a joint statement, Sen. Paul LeVota, of Independence, and state Rep. Genise Montecillo, of St. Louis, specifically cited Nicastro's handling of a cost estimate for the ballot measure. They also mentioned her handling of a Kansas City charter school that was allowed to remain open after a judge reversed a decision to not renew its application.

LeVota and Montecillo said there is a lack of trust and confidence in Nicastro's leadership among lawmakers, education professionals and the public.

"Dr. Nicastro's resignation as education commissioner is necessary to restore public confidence that (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) is working on behalf of the children," the lawmakers said.

The education commissioner is selected by the State Board of Education. A Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

Nicastro was named education commissioner in 2009 and is the fifth person -- and first woman -- to hold the position since the office was created in 1947.

The Democratic lawmakers' on Tuesday referenced an email showing the state auditor's office made a routine request for a cost estimate for the proposed initiative petition after it was filed. An education department staff member originally proposed saying there was "potential for significant unknown costs" to local school districts, but Nicastro changed that to say "cost unknown."

The emails were obtained by the Missouri National Education Association in response to an open records law request and were provided to The Associated Press. The teacher's union opposes the proposed ballot measure and has said the level of collaboration is concerning.

Emails show Nicastro met with an advocate of the initiative more than a year ago, suggested specific wording and reviewed a final draft. Nicastro told the AP last week she has no position on the initiative and provided information as she would with anyone proposing a change to state law.

In a letter Friday to three education organizations, Nicastro said the department focused on the educator evaluation system and made clear it had no position on teacher tenure. She said it has found every number it suggests for cost estimates receive detailed scrutiny and require justification with "absolute accuracy."

She said there was lobbying by groups wanting a high cost estimate and by others seeking no cost.

"The fact is, in this case, the cost could vary from zero to a lot," Nicastro wrote. "The cost could be zero for districts that choose to use the state model, forms, procedures and training. For districts that choose to develop their own system, the costs could be in the millions."

The proposed initiative petition would end tenure protections for teachers and certified school staff by limiting their contracts to three years. Starting in July 2015, public school districts would be required to use a staff evaluation that uses "student performance data" to guide decisions on promoting, demoting, firing and paying employees. Supporters must gather roughly 160,000 signatures for the constitutional amendment to appear on the November 2014 ballot.

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