WHAT OTHERS SAY: Secrecy harms chance to help Kansas City schools

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

No one should be satisfied with the status quo when it comes to the Kansas City Public Schools. The system overall is still failing to prepare students for a productive life beyond high school.

But the Missouri Board of Education and Commissioner Chris Nicastro need to understand that this community is deeply wary of radical change forced upon the schools by outsiders. That indelible legacy is a byproduct of the long history of court-ordered desegregation and monitoring, plus far too much experimentation with its schools.

The challenge now is to build consensus for a plan to overcome the district's long history of failure. Unfortunately, emails showing questionable behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Nicastro and others will make that much harder.

The emails, requested under the Missouri Sunshine Law by the community group MORE2, show Nicastro working with officials from the Kauffman Foundation and Hall Family Foundation to arrange for a privately funded study of the district that would present a plan for moving forward.

Some of the emails suggest an interest in creating a new statewide district for poorly performing schools, including Kansas City's. Nicastro said on Monday no decisions have been made.

"There is no plan," she said. "We are gathering input. It's really a disservice to the community and the children to not explore new ideas for how to run unaccredited districts."

But the emails detail a rushed bidding process that placed responsibility for carrying out the study in the hands of an Indianapolis firm, CEE-Trust, which was the choice of Nicastro and the foundation officials from the beginning. A second bidder, which offered to do the job at a much lower price, was graded down sharply in the area of expertise, even though the firm has a long history of assisting school systems.

Nicastro and others insist they are working up to an inclusive public conversation. But the questionable bidding process and the behind-the-scenes maneuvers create an impression that public input is being sought only to justify a foregone conclusion.

Activity possibly aimed at a new form of governance comes as the Kansas City Public Schools has made strides over the past two years, as measured by Missouri’s accreditation process.

Students still lag far behind academically. But the district has achieved some long-sought stability with Superintendent R. Stephen Green and a functional school board. A reasonable approach would be for the state and local civic community to step in with resources to help the district accelerate its gains. A plan by a group of school superintendents, which proposes a strategy for reform at the school building level, also deserves consideration.

The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Kansas City Public Schools will have to pay for students to attend class elsewhere. The district has said the potential student transfers could cost the district $150 million from a $268 million budget. That is a recipe for chaos, both for the urban school system and nearby districts that would potentially have to absorb hundreds of new students.

It doesn’t have to happen. The Kansas City Public Schools have regained enough points to qualify for provisional accreditation. The best course would be for the state board to grant that status as long as the district continues to improve, and to help it do so.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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