Lee’s Summit superintendent threatens to quit over board vote on racial equity plan

The controversy over racial equity in Lee’s Summit erupted Thursday night with school board members voting down a second attempt to get training for teachers and staff, and the superintendent saying he now wants out of the district.

After the 4-3 vote that shot down a proposal to spend more than $97,000 to hire a St. Louis firm to train employees in racial equity, diversity and inclusion, Superintendent Dennis Carpenter told board members to settle out his contract and “find somebody this board can trust.”

Board members seemed stunned when a clearly frustrated Carpenter addressed them immediately after their vote.

“I have sat with this district and tried to work with this district,” said Carpenter, the district’s first African American superintendent. “I think if you don’t have a leader you can trust, I think you need to find someone you can trust. … Every piece I put forth in this district to try and assure equity, it was met with opposition.

“I want you all to fulfill my contract,” Carpenter said, referring to a clause that requires the district to buy him out if he is dismissed. “What this district needs to help move it forward is a superintendent it can trust.”

Parents in the audience shouted from the back of the packed board room, calling one board member a racist.

“What kind of message are they sending?” said Lashawn Walker, a parent and president of a community group that has been pushing for the equity training.

“What do they think, children of color are going to stop moving to this district?” Walker said outside the meeting room. “This district is only going to get more diverse. This is a slap in the face to all the families who have moved here for a better district. This is horrible. They are going to run the first African American superintendent out of here. This is bad. They don’t want to say this district is racist. Well this proves it is.”

On Friday morning Carpenter did not back away from his Thursday night comments. “I probably tossed the ball in the board’s court. They will have to decide,” he said. In a statement Carpenter also said: “I have spent a career of 23 years being committed to the effective education of all children and I am as clear and unwavering in that commitment now as I’ve ever been.”

On Thursday, board members Dennis Smith, Jackie Clark and Ryan Murdock voted in favor of hiring Education Equity Consultants, a St. Louis firm that, according to its website, “creates a safe environment for people of color and whites to heal from the hurts of racism.”

“If spending $97,000 is going to help us understand each other,” Murdock said, “then, man, I’ll take that every day of the week.” The room erupted in applause.

Newly elected board members Judy Hedrick and Mike Allen, as well as incumbent Kim Fritchie and president Julie Doane, voted against the measure. Doane declined to talk with The Star following the meeting to explain her vote. But during the meeting, after learning that part of the training would deal with white privilege, she said, “I don’t like the word ‘privilege.’” She equated dealing with assumptions made about her because she is blond to racial oppression people of color experience.

Before the vote, Fritchie said she thought the district could do the training on its own.

“Do we need to focus more on cultural competency? We do. But I happen to think we have the staff in our organization to be able to do that ourselves,” she said. She said that instead of paying a firm to help the district implement an equity plan, “we need smaller class sizes. We need more early childhood education to make sure our little ones are ready to learn when they go to school.” She said what the district needs more of is teacher assistants, mentors and tutors “to rally around our kids.”

Fritchie said the entire board wants to see all students succeed, “we just have different ideas on how we need to get there.”

Allen said he knew his “no” vote would be seen as a racial vote. “But it is not a racial vote,” he said.

“Yes it was,” someone shouted from the rear of the room. “He is racist.”

The decision over equity training, he said, “should not be made based on emotion. … We don’t have to be a divisive community.”

Contention in this mostly white and affluent suburban community began early in the school year after Carpenter proposed spending $7,000 to bring in the black-owned Pacific Education Group of California for a series of sessions to address bias and build equity.

Carpenter and other district administrators said the training was vital to address the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

A study commissioned by the district revealed that in nearly every measurable academic category, Lee’s Summit’s black students were being outperformed by their white counterparts. And while black students accounted for 12 percent of enrollment, they represented nearly 36 percent of suspensions, numbers reflective of trends seen in many suburban districts across the country.

But parents and other residents spoke out at a school board meeting and on social media, complaining that the firm was too expensive and too set on discussing white privilege and the cultural competence of white teachers educating black children.

In October, after weeks of heated complaints from parents and the community, the school district backed off from the plan.

In January, a teachers union wrote a letter suggesting that the school board get rid of Carpenter. And the same day a parent questioned the superintendent’s integrity and posted a photo he’d dug up of Carpenter raising his middle finger while hanging out with old college friends. Some in the community had called Carpenter “the race doctor” and plotted his ouster.

District leaders have said they remained committed to equity and inclusion but wanted to work with a different firm. In February they unanimously approved a plan for equity and started seeking another firm to help them implement it.

Education Equity Consultants, the firm that was on Thursday night’s agenda, was founded in 1992 with a commitment “to achieve racial equity in education,” according to its website. It has provided training at hundreds of school districts across the country, including area districts in Belton, North Kansas City and for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Missouri School Boards Association.

The firm’s website says it uses “a process of challenging introspection and reflection” to help educators explore “how our own attitudes about race and racism might be limiting students’ capability to achieve.”

Unlike the previously suggested firm, Education Equity Consultants was prepared to work a full academic year with the district on professional development and teaching methods that promote cultural competence.

Before the vote, Phil Hunsberger, co-owner of Education Equity Consultants, tried to convince the board that the firm was right for the job. He told them that creating a more equitable and inclusive district required “second-order change” that would mean tough and sometimes painful work. “But struggle is part of the process,” he said. “We have to be willing to accept a lens and walk in someone else’s shoes.” He said that his firm would focus on racial inequities, “but not at the exclusion of other oppressions.”

But Hunsberger said his firm was not interested in working with a district that “only wanted to check off a box” by approving a equity plan, but was not willing to do the hard work to implement the plan.

The move to train educators in racial equity, diversity and inclusion is a national trend.

“I was hoping we would be joining a national conversation that policy makers and educators across the country and elsewhere in this region are having,” said board member Clark. “We have past superintendents who knew this work should have started years ago. This conversation cannot go away.”

After the vote, Carpenter asked the board to remove two items from the agenda: a reorganization plan he is leading and a proposal to spend $650,000 on English literacy resources in elementary school. Carpenter said he didn’t understand how the board could trust a superintendent to implement a $650,000 literacy plan if they did not trust him to lead an equity plan costing less than $100,000.

Carpenter was hired from the Hickman Mills district in 2017. In March the board voted to extend his contract for one full year. It gives him an annual salary of $235,000 with annual increases that would match the percentage boost made to teachers’ base pay.

Students in the audience watching the drama unfold at Thursday night’s meeting said they were disappointed in the board decision and Carpenter’s reaction.

“This is just another case of leaders who do not represent their constituents,” said Victoria Bingaman, who graduated last week from Lee’s Summit West High School.

“The people sitting in classrooms every day do not see a problem with the equity training,” said Maryam Khalil, who also graduated from West last week. “It’s like they are not representing the students.”

She said she believed that Carpenter saying he was ready to walk away from the district “was a call to action to let people know that what he was sent here to do was not happening.”

But Bingaman had another take.

“When the equity plan first came out I talked with Dr. Carpenter and I told him that the most successful people in life walk through the fire no matter how hot it got. To see him kind of give up was kind of disheartening.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star

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.