A Missouri House panel is considering whether to allow state officials to intervene more quickly in beleaguered school districts.
Parents and community leaders from Kansas City were among those packing the House Education Committee hearing Wednesday morning. Most of the speakers said they support an immediate state takeover.
The committee debated the issue Wednesday afternoon, but voting was held up because lawmakers became bogged down in discussions about amendments.
The committee adjourned to attend to business on the House floor, but hopes to reconvene later tonight.
KCTV5 is the only Kansas City area broadcast outlet in attendance for the hearing in Jefferson City.
The state Senate voted 33-1 to approve the bill, which has the support of Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro. The bill would allow a state-appointed panel to oversee districts. Of the five members, three must be from the affected district.
The Missouri Board of Education voted last September to strip the Kansas City School District of its accreditation status. Both the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts are now unaccredited, along with a third district.
Current state law gives districts at least two years and up to three years to show improvement before the state can take over. A decade ago, the Kansas City district averted a state takeover after losing accreditation and regained provisional accreditation about two years later.
But some parents argue the district has had more than enough time to turn academic achievement around.
"We don't want to wait two more years," said Gwen Grant, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City. "Too much is at stake. Urgent action is needed now. Our children deserve it and have a fundamental right to a quality education. We cannot delay."
She said changing the district's name, changing advisory boards and changing the electoral process won't fix the problems facing the district as long as local control continues.
Wallace Hartsfield, long-time pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church, said immediate action is needed for the sake of the district's students.
"We are moving toward illiteracy," he said.
Kansas City Board of Education trustees Crispin Rea, Joe Jackson and Airick West testified. They argued that local control is vital.
Rea suggested moving elections from April to August as a way to increase voter turnout. He also said at-large rather than in-district elections would dilute the advantage that special interest groups now have. He said fewer board members is another possible solution.
West said the only state takeovers that have a proven record of success are those with financial troubles. He said taking over academically challenged districts has not turned test scores around and means people who live far away are overseeing a district.
He said the strategy for improvement must come from the local level. He said parental behaviors must change as well.
"Only that in a long-term, permanent basis restores achievement," West said. "Local control is the best solution."
Some believe state control has helped the St. Louis district. But what works in St. Louis may not work in Kansas City, West said.
"There's no single one size fits all," he said. "How can we apply a bandage to everything?"
The American Federation of Teachers said it supports giving the state the flexibility to intervene to ensure schools are run smoothly with as little disruption to the students as possible. But the union noted that does not mean the district will step in right away.
Those supporting quicker state intervention include leaders of the African-Centered Education Task Force. The current school board has ended the group's contract to run three schools on district property.
Ajamu Webster, who heads up the task force, said he only recently decided to support immediate state intervention.
"I really believed the district needed to be locally controlled and that we could make it happen," he said. "Unfortunately, I was disappointed like many others, and we find a situation where we are calling for relief."
Missouri Sen. David Pearce, a Republican from Warrensburg, said this is a serious issue, which is why he said he authored the bill. He said two years is too long to wait.
"A school district the size of Kansas City has implications statewide, and currently under state statute it takes two complete school years before the state can take over. That's too long," he said. "Things aren't working. The status quo is unacceptable."
He said the state cannot afford to delay aid to children until summer 2014.
"That's too long," he said. "These kids need help."
The amendments that tied up a vote Wednesday include changing the makeup of the board and when elections are held. But another amendment would affect when children are made to repeat a grade.
Andrea Flinders, head of the Kansas City teachers union, said everyone must work together to boost student achievement.
"It's going to be a struggle. We do need some stability and to keep the focus on the children, but I think we have things in place to do that," she said.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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