Controversial Missouri Commissioner of Education Nicastro Retiring

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Missouri’s education commissioner, Chris Nicastro, has intervened in Missouri’s public schools with zeal, particularly in those schools struggling to perform in high-poverty districts such as Kansas City and St. Louis — and soon her tenure will be over.

When the state board appointed Nicastro in 2009, they made clear the fact that they wanted radical intervention, according to Joe Robertson of The Kansas City Star. In the 1990s, Missouri’s Outstanding Schools Act played a part in raising school performance and accountability. Nicastro was saddled with the task of pulling schools out of the existing hole, improving the achievement gap between students of differing socioeconomic means and those students of different races.

Nicastro took this challenge seriously, and used her background as a social studies teacher in high minority/high poverty districts in the “North County” of St. Louis County, her status as Superintendent of the Year in Hazelwood, MO, and her belief that she was “called” to do the job, to become the first woman state commissioner and the first to have come from urban school districts.

In 2011, Kansas City’s superintendent Steve Green found himself in a sudden education maelstrom. Rising test scores began to decline, the incumbent superintendent resigned amid  massive school closings he had implemented, and new programming was being put into place under his administration. Nicastro stepped in and made bold and brave moves, with a shrinking budget and a severely divided educational landscape.

Education Commissioner Bob Bartman said, the work is harder now. “The environment is in some ways toxic,” said Bartman, who recently retired as superintendent of the Center School District. “There is a polarization of ideas, a lack of resources and more demands being placed on school districts,” he said. And while Bartman enjoyed funding increases to put the state plans to work in the 1990s, Nicastro is getting less.

With much difficult and drawn-out work, the administration and school board of Kansas City survived and provisional accreditation was acquired, but the community wants more students passing state test goals. Green says the Kansas City education system survived and the city is stronger for it. He gives Nicastro credit. Meanwhile, Nicastro  has decided to retire at the end of this year. She adds that she wants to keep community fires burning.

Nicastro says that every contentious decision she has made in her tenure as state commissioner was based on the best interest of Missouri’s children, writes Kasia Kovacs reporting for the Missourian. Being named state commissioner was a surprise.

“As a superintendent, you have a given community you work with. Most of your community has pretty similar values and points of view,” Nicastro said. “In this position (education commissioner), you have no control like you do as a superintendent over your budget or your staff … and you have many more constituencies and many more people you have to work to satisfy.”

The people to whom she is referring include 500 superintendents, 200 legislators, the governor, and the Missouri State Board of Education.

In 2012, the Normandy Schools District in north St. Louis County lost its accreditation because of failing academics and student transfers. The district was taken over by the state and renamed Normandy Schools Collaborative earlier this year. Another district, Riverview Gardens School District, lost its accreditation in 2007 because of low student achievement and was put under state supervision in 2010. This district remains unaccredited. Recently, the education department hired consultant CEE-Trust to overhaul Kansas City’s unaccredited school district. An audit faulted the district for the move.

Around 40 candidates have been nominated for the Missouri Commissioner of Education position, reports the Southeast Missourian. The deadline for submitting nominations was Friday.

Mara’ Rose Williams, writing for The Kansas City Star, along with the Associated Press, say that the problem with Nicastro hiring the CEE-Trust was that the manner in which the consultant was chosen was riddled with potential conflicts of interest. Deputy State Auditor Harry Otto said that the process did not “properly guard against bias.

Among other comments made concerning Nicastro’s legacy, State Board of Education member John Martin said that Nicastro was “significant in making changes and creating a lot of discomfort.”

“Kansas City is now moving in a positive direction. But had the shake-up not occurred, I’m not sure we would have seen the district moving in such a positive direction.”
A community organization, MORE², which stands behind equity in education policy and funding, hopes to be a part of the selection of Nicastro’s successor. The organization wants the person selected to be concerned about racial and economic equity.