For Kansas City Public Schools, the race to hold off a state takeover is becoming a sprint.
A Senate bill that would make a swifter takeover possible is rushing forward, spurring the district to show it is making enough progress to deserve two years to regain accreditation.
"We're in full-court-press mode now," Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said.
Senate Bill 7, sponsored by state Sen. David Pearce, is likely headed for a vote in the Senate Education Committee today. The bill would remove limitations in state law that give any unaccredited school district two full school years to regain its status before the state is required to intervene.
Pearce, who leads the Senate Education Committee, said he wanted the bill to move quickly for two reasons.
One is to discourage the political ploy late in the legislative session in which lawmakers try to add amendments or leverage votes on other issues -- a move that derailed similar legislation in the final days of last year's session.
The other reason, he said, is the urgency in repairing Kansas City schools.
"The bottom line is the district is unaccredited," said Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican. "Why wait?"
Pearce and other lawmakers involved in the debate expect a version of the bill to pass out of the Senate committee and likely advance through the full Senate. The bill would be more prone to collide with other education issues in the House, they say, but it is not inconceivable that the measure could be passed with an emergency clause and signed into law well before the session is over in May.
In that case, the state board could act by this summer and launch a process of public meetings required by the bill that could lead to the district being placed under the control of an appointed board before the next school year.
Many lawmakers -- and the Kansas City Public Schools leadership -- support the core language in the bill. They agree that the education commissioner and the state school board should not be compelled to decide for or against the takeover of a school district only at the two-year mark.
Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro wants the state to have the discretion to move in more quickly or to allow an improving district to carry on.
Kansas City school officials, however, want the bill to include language to guide the state that would give an unaccredited district that is measurably improving at least the two full years to reach performance levels required for accreditation.
As the law stands, Kansas City has until June 2014.
To allow state intervention when a district is improving risks unnecessary disruption in the classroom, Kansas City school board President Airick Leonard West said.
"Unaccredited districts that are not improving don't deserve more time," West said. "But as long as a district continues to improve scholar achievement, the best public policy is to let that progress continue."
Whatever happens, the school district will be in a scramble to show it is making improvements.
Either lawmakers will need to be persuaded enough to incline toward the language protecting improving districts, or the district will be making its case in earnest to the commissioner and the state board.
The district showed improvement in state test scores in 2012, angling upward again in what has been a historical struggle for higher academic performance.
The last downturn came in 2011 in a school year in which former Superintendent John Covington had closed 40 percent of the district's schools, installed new modes of classroom instruction and revamped curriculum. Test scores dropped that year.
Covington left abruptly in August 2011 for Michigan, sending the district into turmoil. That fall the state school board stripped the district's provisionally accredited status effective Jan. 1, 2012.
The district calmed in the past year. It received its first clean audit in decades. Small improvements in state scores were issued in summer 2012. And now, in regular presentations to the state, the district is projecting that it has a shot at reaching near the provisionally accredited level when the results of this spring's testing are issued this summer.
"If you consider the swirling conditions we operated under, the administration, teachers and students all demonstrated resiliency," Green said. "We remain resilient and persistent about what we need to do to turn things around. And we're well under way to doing that."
The district is basing its projection on internal testing of students that is designed to predict performance on state tests. The real measure reflected by the state scores likely won't be revealed until August.
That may be too long to wait, Pearce said.
"There have been challenges for decades," he said. "My thought is they've had plenty of time."
The standard the district must reach is getting steeper since the state this year is moving to a new system of measurements to grade school districts.
A preliminary test of the new system, using the last three years of data, showed that Kansas City earned 19.5 percent of the possible points. It will need to reach at least 50 percent to be performing at a provisionally accredited level, and 70 percent or more to be considered for full accreditation.
The difficulty of the task under the new system is also reflected in St. Louis Public Schools, which has been under an appointed board since 2007. Last year St. Louis regained provisional accreditation, but the same preliminary projection scored St. Louis at 22.5 percent of its possible points, putting it in danger of losing its status unless it also makes significant improvement.