July 22, 2014

MO Education Commissioner addresses e-mail controversy (AUDIO)

Missouri’s Commissioner of Education says she and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education did nothing unusual in working with a lobbyist on the development of a ballot initiative.

Chris Nicastro testifies in a House Committee Hearing (courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

Chris Nicastro testifies in a House Committee Hearing (courtesy; Missouri House Communications)

The Missouri chapter of the National Education Association obtained and released e-mails exchanged among Chris Nicastro, staff members at DESE and Kate Casas, state policy director for the Children’s Education Council of Missouri. MNEA Political Director Mark Jones says those e-mails, “show a disturbing level of collusion and cooperation between a high-ranking official and a paid lobbyist.”

The ballot initiative Casas was working on would eliminate teacher tenure and institute teacher evaluations based on student performance. The campaign has been financed by political activist Rex Sinquefield.

Nicastro tells Missourinet her office routinely reviews proposals from individuals and organizations from varying points of view to make sure they don’t conflict with the State Board of Education’s vision for education in the state.

She stresses DESE was not working with Casas on the tenure issue.

“We made it very clear from the beginning that we did not have a position on tenure and would not weigh in on that topic,” she says.

Nicastro says her staff instead focused on the student performance testing component of the initiative and how that might mesh with what DESE is doing regarding educator evaluations.

“We’ve been working on that with all of our education partners, including the NEA, for three years and we wanted to make sure that whatever they put in the petition, should that prove to be passed at some point, that it didn’t conflict with that work.”

See our earlier story on MNEA’s release of those e-mails

Jones keys on two points in the e-mail communications. In one, Nicastro instructs DESE Counsel Mark VanZandt to bring copies of the proposed language to the closed session meeting of the State Board of Education and not to include it in the publicly posted agenda.

Nicastro says there was “nothing nefarious” or unusual about that.

“We do not post things that go into closed session. That’s certainly in compliance with the law,” says Nicastro. “The reason we would do that in executive session is so that the Board’s attorney could brief them on the implications of that initiative petition relative to the Board’s role in dealing with evaluation or other issues that might come up legally, related to that petition.”

Jones also criticizes Nicastro for changing a proposed cost estimate to be submitted to the State Auditor from reading local governments could face the “potential for significant unknown costs” to reading “cost unknown.”

Nicastro says her change made the wording more concise, and was meant to keep DESE’s input on the fiscal note objective.

“Any time we do a fiscal note we have to be sure that we can document exactly where those numbers came from,” she explains.

She says the costs of student testing in support of new staff evaluations could vary widely across Missouri’s 520 school districts and more than 50 charter school local education agencies.

“If they choose to adopt the state model as it exists, if they choose to use all the forms and procedures that we’ve outlined, if they choose to use the training that we’ve provided, their cost could be zero or very little. If, on the other hand, a district were to choose … which they can … to develop their own model aligned with the seven principles that we’ve put forth and do their own development and their own training, their cost could be quite significant,” says Nicastro. “In a case like that we would simply say we don’t know. ‘Cost unknown.’”

Nicastro says she does not know if at the time she changed the fiscal note, information was available from the cost analyses of cost of the new student testing the initiative would require.

In those analyses the Cape Girardeau District said the tests could cost it more than $2.6 million up front and more than $105,000 annually. The Hannibal District put those costs at more than $1.7 million initially and more than $79,000 annually. The Rockwood School District said the initial cost would be more than $10 million, with an annual cost of nearly $557,000.

Nicastro says, “I wouldn’t be privy to that.”

The State School Board President has revised its statement in support of Nicastro. It asserts, “The Commissioner and her staff routinely respond to requests for review of legislative proposals. In this case the primary focus was on alignment with the Department’s work on a state model for educator evaluation.”

Listen to Mike Lear’s interview with Chris Nicastro: