Missouri names first female commissioner of education

Friday, July 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Newly selected Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris Nicastro, left, stands next to Sandy King, wife of the late Kent King, the former commissioner of education, at a press conference announcing Nicastro's position at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Jefferson City on Thursday.

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s new education commissioner said one of her top priorities is raising student performance throughout the state.

Chris Nicastro, 58, was named Thursday as Missouri’s first female commissioner of education. Nicastro, who currently serves as the superintendent of the Hazelwood School District, begins her new duties Aug. 1 with an annual salary of $185,400.

New education commissioner

Name: Chris Nicastro

Age: 58

Current position: Superintendent of Hazelwood School District in St. Louis County, the fifth-largest district in the state

Experience: High school social studies teacher, assistant to the superintendent for personnel, assistant superintendent and superintendent

Notable: Nicastro is the fifth person, and the first woman, to serve as Missouri's education commissioner. She also was the first woman to serve as president of the Missouri Association of School Administrators and received the 2009 Superintendent of the Year award from the organization.

“Our greatest challenge is to meet student needs in every school, in every district throughout the state,” Nicastro said. “There remain districts with unacceptable performance and little sign of improvement.”

Nicastro said there are many factors that affect poor school performance, but she insisted the fault lies with the education system, not with the children. 

One solution Nicastro pointed to as “key” was to ensure that students receive the highest quality education by hiring and retaining the best teachers possible, a task that remains difficult for districts throughout the state. Nick Boren, chief operations officer for Columbia Public Schools, said Missouri teacher salaries rank near the bottom in the nation.

Nicastro recognized this obstacle and said several options are being considered, including merit pay, or paying teachers relative to the performance of their students. But given the state’s current financial situation, raising teacher salaries could be far off.

With resources tight, the state education system needs leadership now more than ever, Boren said. He said the Columbia School District is looking for “the ultimate leader, somebody with a vision.”

Boren, who has known Nicastro professionally for several years, called her “bright, articulate and dynamic.”

He said expectations for Nicastro are high, and he hopes she will be able to decrease the achievement gap among students and keep Missouri on the cutting edge of education.  

Among the final candidates for the position was Bert Schulte, a Columbia resident and former Columbia Public Schools assistant superintendent. Schulte has served as  interim commissioner for the past six months, following the death of Commissioner Kent King.

Although Schulte was not selected, State Board of Education Past President Russell Thompson praised Schulte for his work.

“He accepted more and more responsibility, did it quietly and did it exceedingly well,” Thompson said.   

The commissioner of education is the top education official in the state. It is the commissioner’s role to oversee the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education and serve as the liaison between the department and district officials. Nicastro is the fifth person in state history to hold this position.

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