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As Missouri Picks New Education Chief, Union Sees Opportunity For Diversity

Elle Moxley

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education wants to know what qualities the public values in its next education leader.

Current education commissioner Chris Nicastro plans to retire at the end of the year, leaving the State Board about two months to hire her replacement. The department released its criteria for selecting a new leader on Tuesday.

Missouri National Education Association President Charles Smith sent a letter to the State Board last week urging an open, transparent process. He says the education department needs a leader who can guide the turnaround of districts in Normandy, Riverview Gardens, St. Louis and Kansas City.

"The approach (so far) has fallen short of meeting the needs of the students, parents and communities at large," says Smith. "I believe it's time to look for new approaches from new leadership."

Smith has been critical of a lack of diversity among the department's senior staff. He says hiring someone whose background reflects the urban districts where the state has intervened would help build trust in the local community.

"Whoever is selected must be an education leader, must have a track record of turning around districts at risk," says Smith.

Smith says it takes time to turn around a struggling district – on average, three to five years – and his organization would like an education commissioner who understands that reality. He also says Missouri needs an education leader who won't get dinged by the state auditor for its contract process, as the department did under Nicastro.

The State Board will take nominations and applications through Nov. 21 with hopes of wrapping up the search before the end of the calendar year.

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