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Lack Of Diversity Noted In School Commissioner Search

Mike Jones talks with education commissioner Chris Nicastro.
File photo: Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

When Chris Nicastro was chosen as Missouri’s education commissioner in 2009, her experience with school districts in north St. Louis County was cited as a big factor.

Now, as the Missouri state board of education prepares to interview five finalists to succeed Nicastro, they have a list of four white men who have been superintendents in Joplin, Branson, Springfield and Wentzville, plus a white woman who has been actively involved in north county as deputy commissioner but has never served as a superintendent.

Mike Jones of St. Louis, vice president of the state board and one of two African-American members, said that lack of diversity in the candidate pool shouldn’t be a surprise.

“As long as the state capital is in Jefferson City,” he said in an interview “and the state pays what it pays, attracting top-flight minority talent is always going to be a problem for Missouri. I'm not surprised that you didn't get a serious African-American or other minority candidates.” 

Actually, one African-American woman did apply. Della Streaty-Wilhoit of Columbia, who stressed a variety of experiences in education and administration, sent in her application. But she was not part of the list that was narrowed to five by the state board last week.

"I was very, very surprised that I did not make the list of the final five," she said in an interview Monday. "I really thought my name would go forward because of all of the work I've done."

The selection process was structured, Jones noted, so that people could be nominated or could apply on their own. So nothing prevented minority candidates from seeking to succeed Nicastro when she retires at the end of the month.

“People got nominated by a whole range of stakeholders and interest groups,” he said, “and we had to see if they had any interest.

“In this case, you’re not drafting people for the job. These are the five top candidates that emerged out of this pool. You have to select from a group of people who are interested in doing the job.”

John Martin of Kansas City, the board’s other African-American member, noted that whoever is chosen as commissioner will deal with the districts whose struggles have taken up a lot of time at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently – districts like Normandy, Riverview Gardens, Kansas City and St. Louis.

But the new commissioner also will have to deal with the other 500-plus districts in the state, in a variety of rural, urban and suburban settings.

John Martin
Credit DESE
John Martin

“What we were looking for,” he said in an interview, “was someone who could be the CEO for the statewide system and provide leadership across all of those areas. While one or two of those candidates did have experience with minority populations, all had experience running school districts with significant levels of poverty.

“None of them is ideal, but out of the candidates that we received, they were the best of the lot. Would I have preferred to have more minority candidates and candidates with more experience in urban areas? Yes. But they did not apply.”

Final five

The state board has called a closed meeting for Tuesday in Jefferson City to interview the five finalists for the commissioner’s job:

  • Terry Adams, former superintendent in Wentzville and Rockwood
  • Douglas Hayter, superintendent in Branson
  • Charles Huff, superintendent in Joplin
  • Norman Ridder, interim superintendent of Mehlville and former superintendent in Springfield
  • Margie Vandeven, currently the state's deputy commissioner for learning services

Jones said that the board hopes, after the interviews are complete, to choose a commissioner without any further consideration or delay. Their choice, he added, will be guided by the candidates’ views on leadership.
“What you’re looking for is somebody who can have a couple of things,” he said. “One is a breadth of knowledge and experience on a range of educational problems that Missouri has, rural to urban to suburban. Second, you’re looking for someone who has leadership skills to advance policy.

“Ultimately, the state board of education and the department basically set the policy agenda. We don’t actually run school districts. We do set the policy agenda and leadership that’s required.”

The leadership that Nicastro had shown as superintendent in Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood was cited when the board chose her as commissioner in 2009. At that time, she told the St. Louis Beacon:

“I think that I do bring a unique perspective to the position in that I've had extensive experience in an urban environment and I understand the challenges that districts like Hazelwood, Riverview and St. Louis face."

And she told the Post-Dispatch:

“We cannot afford to allow over 7 percent of our student population to be at risk because of where they live. Our greatest challenge is to find a way to meet student needs in every school, in every district, throughout the state."

Top 10 by '20

Peter Herschend of Branson, president of the state board and the only member today who also was on the board when Nicastro was hired, says the main question he wants to ask candidates is how they are going to help Missouri reach the top 10 among states educationally by the year 2020 – a goal that has been a key part of Nicastro’s tenure.

In interviews last week, after their names were announced, the candidates for the job talked about that goal and other issues; you can read their answers here.

When asked whether it was necessary for the new commissioner to have experience in an area like Normandy, Herschend has said

“That would be very, very nice,” he said, “but then on the other hand, what do you say to somebody who is in a rural, poor district, where poverty is just rampant? Are you going to say they're not important? There are thousands of those youngsters, too.”

Education groups asked about the slate of five finalists were generally noncommittal.

“All of the individuals are good candidates for the position,” said Roger Kurtz, head of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, in an email. “Each brings with him/her a wealth of experience, leadership skills and abilities. The State Board has a difficult job ahead of them.”

A statement from the Missouri School Boards Association said:

“It’s an impressive field of finalists, all with a great deal of knowledge and experience and we look forward to working with whomever the State Board of Education selects as the next commissioner.”

But Mark Jones of the Missouri National Education Association had a more critical view. His group had sought to open up the process when Herschend had planned a shorter, more compressed search, and he even sent around a page from the state’s Blue Book showing the lack of diversity at the top level of DESE’s leadership.

Asked about the final five candidates, Mark Jones responded in an interview this way:

Mark Jones
Credit Missouri NEA
Mark Jones

“I look at this as a missed opportunity to be more inclusive and diverse. I would look for more diverse leadership at the top of DESE. This is certainly a better process than when we started, which was going to be a very rushed process. I think we all would have liked to see the list of potential candidates broadened to be more diverse, beyond the borders of the state of Missouri.

“But moving forward, I would hope that the new commissioner is more aggressive about ensuring the top leadership at DESE is more diverse and is able to reflect more of the communities that DESE is intervening in every day.”

The issue, he added, is one of understanding and perception.

“It's about how communities perceive the leadership at DESE as being folks who share experiences that are inclusive and diverse and understand the issues that districts like Normandy are going through,” Mark Jones said. “They're dealing with students who come from incredibly high poverty neighborhoods, and that requires a little more thought process and a little more diversity at the top to engage those districts in more meaningful conversations about how those districts can continued to move forward and improve. 

“Most importantly, though, this is really about how DESE is perceived by folks from the outside and whether there is a commitment at the top to have folks that are in the leadership of DESE be as diverse as the populations of students that they're helping.”

But for Mike Jones, the board’s vice president, the question is more rooted in the facts of the situation.

“The reality is,” he said, “you have what you have. You make the best decision, and then you do the best that you can after you make the best decision that you can.

“You don't get to critique it against some theory of what you wish you had. You have to look at the options that are in front of you. In Missouri, at this time, these are the five best candidates that are available for us to interview and select from. That's not a judgment. That's just a fact.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story indicated no African-American candidates applied for the commissioner's job. The story has been corrected to say one candidate did apply but did not make the final five.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.