Lee’s Summit schools leader, whose racial equity plan caused a rift, has new contract

Lee’s Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter — whose plan to provide diversity training to school staff caused a major rift with some parents and teachers — has been given another year to lead the district.

After months of negotiations, the Lee’s Summit School Board this week voted to extend Carpenter’s contract for one full year. Carpenter accepted the new contract, which agrees to continue paying him an annual salary of $235,000 with annual increases that would match the percentage boost made to teachers’ base pay. Teacher salary increases will be decided by the school board this spring.

Carpenter, who previously led the Hickman Mills School District, has been at the helm in Lee’s Summit for nearly two years. His current three-year contract ends July 2020. His new contract goes until July 2021, said Phyliss Balagna, who chairs the district board.

“Being a leader takes courage and we have a courageous leader in Dr. Carpenter,” Balagna said. She said the board voted to extend his contract because they wanted to give him another two years to carry out plans they’ve set for the district, including efforts to train staff in diversity and equity and show some results in closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

“The board is behind Dr. Carpenter, we really are,” Balagna said. “It take a brave leader to step up and say, I may ruffle some feathers but this is going to be good, trust me.”

Carpenter, the district’s first African-American superintendent, definitely ruffled feathers when he proposed an equity and cultural competency training program.

The issue led to heated social media discussions in which Carpenter was referred to as “the race doctor” and a strongly worded letter signed by three members of a Lee’s Summit teacher’s union that urged the board not to extend Carpenter’s contract.

Members of the community, parents and some teachers called the nationally known program “controversial” and complained that it “put its focus on ‘white privilege’ as a means to draw attention to diverse bias.”

The board eventually agreed not to go with the program Carpenter suggested. However, earlier this month the board approved an equity plan, but has not yet chosen a training program to accompany it.

“Awarding the equity plan a yes vote sent a very loud message to our community,” Balagna said. “One thing we are committed to is we are committed to a diversity and equity plan.”

Balagna said the loud backlash the board received from the community over Carpenter’s equity training proposal played a minor role in how the board ultimately voted on the superintendent contract, because development and implementation of such a plan was in the works before Carpenter was hired.

“We knew we had an achievement gap, that we needed diversity training,” Balagna said. “One of the things that attracted us to him was that he spoke about raising the achievement gap and diversity training. We want to see Dr. Carpenter succeed.”

Balagna said that before the vote, she and other board members spent a lot of time talking with Carpenter about a social media post that surfaced showing Carpenter in a photo at a recent college homecoming celebration with friends displaying a middle finger.

“The social media part of the discussion was in closed session,” Balagna said, adding that board members talked with Carpenter about ways to move forward from the negative publicity.

Balagna said the board received stacks of letters and emails and lots of calls from the community, teachers, parents and students concerning Carpenter — some supporting him, some wanting him out.

She said board members read and considered all the positions and in the end decided that “as a board we support his work.”

Carpenter said on Thursday in a statement that he is honored to serve as the district’s superintendent.

“The board of education set some aggressive priorities for the first two years of my administration. My team and I clearly achieved each of these priorities,” he said. “I continue to be excited about working with the outstanding faculty and staff of our district to further meet the needs of all students. “

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Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.