Secret negotiations create big problems for Chris Nicastro - KCTV5

Secret negotiations create big problems for Chris Nicastro

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The woman who oversees the Missouri education agency is facing additional criticism for newly discovered emails revealing her hidden plans for the Kansas City School District and raising bid-rigging concerns.

Missouri Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro apparently provided preferential treatment to a consultant. Nicastro, who opposed granting provisional accreditation to the district, wanted a statewide district to operate some of the state's lowest-performing schools, many of them in the Kansas City district.

The emails only further increased calls for Nicastro's resignation or ouster by the state education commissioners.

The interfaith social justice organization MORE2 obtained the emails through a Sunshine Law request.

The emails also show that Indianapolis-based CEE-Trust was hired as a consultant even though another agency had offered its services for a third of the price. Nicastro says the state is after "new ideas."

She also wants CEE-Trust to both develop and oversee the state's efforts to overhaul the Kansas City district. She apparently sought to tap Springfield's retiring school district chief to oversee a statewide district for low-performing schools.

Teachers, parents and public education advocates held a rally Monday night in support of public schools. And many of those in attendance said Nicastro's emails show she is unfairly undermining the progress made by the school district.

The emails, which included officials with the Kauffman and Hall foundations, outline a plan to reform the Kansas City district. Superintendent Steve Green had no idea about the plans.

"It was disturbing to learn the depth of that kind of planning," he said. "And somewhat disheartening."

Andrea Flinders, head of the local teachers union, last month had called for Nicastro to leave the agency. She said the newly discovered emails are even more damaging to Nicastro than what was previously known.

"I was pretty appalled by what I read on those emails," Flinders said. "The fact that Kauffman and Hall and DESE and Nicastro and her group all conspired to force this plan through, and I think that comes through real clearly in these emails."

Nicastro still has the full support of Peter Herschend, the president of the state education commission. His family owns Silver Dollar City and Herschend's political contributions tend to go to Republicans.

"After more than 30 years of failure in Kansas City Public Schools, we need to seize the moment to have a community conversation about how we educate our kids," Herschend said. "We ask that you reserve judgement before any plan has been formulated or ideas even discussed."

In one of the emails, Nicastro told the executive director of CEE-Trust how to deal with the concerns raised by her board about their hiring.

"My board raised a number of concerns, not the least of which is the fact we are proposing to move forward with a group that was not identified through the typical process," she wrote. "All of these are too important for us to proceed without further discussion ... In the meantime, the need for discretion and patience is critical."

Kansas City public education advocate Jan Parks was troubled by what she read in the emails, particularly how the hiring of CEE-Trust occurred. She said the contract needed to be bid out and CEE-Trust had already helped craft the memorandum of understanding so they had insider's knowledge that led to them getting the bid even though others had lower offers. 

"Kansas City never had a chance as far as receiving any provisional accreditation," Flinders said. "This plan was in the works long before test scores were out."

Nicastro said that the KCPS's scores weren't sustained enough over enough of a period of time to recommend removing the status of unaccredited from the district.

A powerful area lawmaker last month called for Nicastro to step down, saying she has demonstrated a tendency "to abuse power."

Sen. Paul LeVota, of Independence, and House member Genise Montecillo, of St. Louis, both Democrats, said in a statement issued in late November that the most recent example arose in recently disclosed emails from the education department dealing with a ballot measure to end teacher tenure and require that student performance guide employment decisions.

A department staff member originally proposed reporting to the state auditor's office that the initiative had potential for significant unknown costs to local school districts. Nicastro changed that to say the cost was unknown.

A state judge also earlier this year said that Nicastro and her staff provided false and misleading information about the state's attempts to close Gordon Parks Elementary School, a charter school in Kansas City.

Other state lawmakers now are joining LeVota and Montecillo and want an investigation into what they believe was bid rigging.

Some Kansas City political and community leaders have been critical of Nicastro for not pushing for a state takeover of the beleaguered Kansas City School District. Nicastro didn't do that but she also didn't support restoring provisional accreditation to the district.

Whatever happens at the state level, Green says he remains committed to serving the students in the district.

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