JEFFERSON CITY | The state would be able to replace the school board of the unaccredited Kansas City district with a new governing structure as soon as this year under a bill that won near unanimous approval today in the Missouri Senate.
The bill's Senate and House sponsor agreed the vote was the biggest hurdle to the bill's passage. It now goes to the House, where similar legislation was approved earlier this year without any opposition.
"I’m just thrilled we got this through the Senate," said Republican Sen. David Pearce of Warrensburg, the bill's sponsor. "I’ve heard people say, ‘Can we just wait?’ No, we can’t wait anymore. There are too many students not getting the quality of education they deserve."
Pearce added: "Getting this out of the Senate is a big accomplishment."
The bill passed on a 33 to 1 vote.
Under current law, a school district has two years after losing its accreditation to turn its performance around or face the potential of a state takeover. Legislation passed Thursday removes the two-year waiting period.
Most assume the bill will result in the state dissolving the Kansas City school board. In December, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro unsuccessfully lobbied the Kansas City school board to consider voluntarily turning control of the district over to a not-yet-created special administrative board.
The district officially became unaccredited on Jan. 1 after failing to reach state performance standards for the second time in 11 years.
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat, said there is no guarantee that the state will move to immediately take over the district. The school board has changed considerably since losing accreditation, he said, and "most of the most egregious actors have left."
"That makes a significant difference," Talboy said. "We just don't know what the next step would be, but the conversations will start to take place very soon."
This legislation is simply about giving the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the ability to immediately start doing whatever is needed to turn the failing district around, said Rep. Mike Lair, a Republican Chillicothe who sponsored a similar bill in the House.
"Two years is too long to wait," he said. "A kid who started the Kansas City school district last fall, all the sudden on the first of January he’s in an unaccredited district. Under the current statute, it would be the middle of his junior year before anything could be done. And with a bureaucracy the size of the Kansas City school district, effectively he’d be out of school before any meaningful changes could be done."
If the state establishes an alternative governing structure for a district, it must review and recertify that new structure every three years. In addition, the state must create a public comment method, establish expectations for academic progress by creating a time line for full accreditation, and provide annual reports to the General Assembly and governor on the district's progress.
Talboy said once the legislation passes and is signed by the governor, the real conversation will begin.
"If you dissolve the school board, what goes in its place?" he said. "That's where the waters get very muddied. That's where the real fireworks will happen down the line. We're not there yet."
Lair admitted he was very surprised the bill passed the Senate. His version of the bill stalled on the Senate floor under the weight of numerous proposed amendments.
He's confident that the House will quickly approve Pearce's legislation.
"This got through the House education committee, rules committee and the full House without one opposing vote," Lair said. "We'll get this thing passed."