Tempers flare as Lee’s Summit school board revisits racial equity plan

Lee’s Summit school Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, with force, pushed his chair back from the dais, planted his feet hard on the floor and raised his voice. School board member Mike Allen had just accused him of saying that Carpenter was at the district only “for the black students.”

“I will not sit here and let you lie on me. I will not,” Carpenter said at a special board meeting Wednesday. “Tell me when I said that? When?”

Allen said he believed he’d heard that at a Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce meeting.

“I have never said that,” Carpenter retorted.

The scene played out in front of a packed room during a meeting called for the board to move forward in providing equity and inclusion training to teachers and staff.

But the meeting devolved into an hour of board members explaining why they had voted “no” last week on hiring a firm to carry out the training, audience members booing at times and the school board president reiterating her apology for her insensitive comments.

The topic of equity has been a contentious one in the fairly affluent and mostly white district throughout this school year, as Carpenter, the district’s first African American superintendent, and his administrative team have tried to get board approval on a consulting firm.

In October the board had rejected a recommendation to spend $7,000 to hire a California firm for short-term training. In February, the board approved an equity plan that included training in “cultural competency.”

But last Thursday the board voted 4-3 against a second firm Carpenter proposed for the job. That plan called for spending $97,000 to hire a St. Louis firm for yearlong training. The firm had been recommended by an 11-member committee, including teachers and district staff.

At the end of Wednesday’s meeting, the board asked administrators to provide by June yet another recommendation for training. But earlier, Carpenter told the board, “the only recommendation that is on the table is the one that was on the table Thursday.”

Board President Julie Doane suggested his team consider two training programs she had come across, including one from the University of Central Missouri. Carpenter reminded her that neither had responded to the district’s request for proposals.

While board members had planned to spend only 30 minutes talking about implementing an equity plan, they took up the better part of an hour explaining their votes last week.

“I just felt like I didn’t have a really good grasp of this proposal,” said member Kim Fritchie. She said she did not see the firm’s training curriculum in the 58-page packet presented to the board. “We don’t adopt anything unless we have fully studied that curriculum. I am not against equity training. I am for equity training.”

Ryan Murdock, who voted in favor of hiring the firm, asked, “If you had more time, two weeks, do you think you would be on board with this?” He did not get an answer.

Allen, who had voted against the consulting firm, said he wished the board had postponed its vote to hear more about the proposal. He said he voted no because “I was not buying what they were attempting to sell.” But he went on to say he was for equity training. “One vote on one night does not derail the equity plan,” Allen said. “The conversation is still in play. We are going to get there.”

Judy Hedrick said she voted no because she was not sure how the district would implement the plan to its entire staff and because she did not believe the training would represent all students.

She mentioned other marginalized students, including those with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ community.

On Thursday, a representative from the proposed consulting firm had told the board his training would address all minority groups but would focus more on racial equity because that was the largest minority in the district.

The district developed the equity plan after a study it commissioned revealed that in nearly every measurable academic category, Lee’s Summit’s black students were 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.

School officials have said that one step toward closing that gap would be equity training, a move that is underway in many of the nation’s school districts, including several in the Kansas City area.

Carpenter said Wednesday that the equity plan his administrative team prepared is “well laid out and well done.”

Although members of the audience were not permitted to address the board, some did boo the board at times and applaud Carpenter, who accused the board of overstepping its responsibilities.

“The board is responsible for the ends, and the administration is responsible for the means to the end,” Carpenter said. The end, he said, is equity in education, and it should be up to district administrators to make that happen. He accused the board of over-scrutinizing proposals for equity training.

On Thursday night, the board had unanimously and with few questions approved spending $650,000 on a literacy plan that he said had gone through the same vetting process as the equity training firm.

It was at that same meeting that Doane, who also voted against the firm, questioned the firm’s plan to include discussion of “white privilege” in the training, saying she did not like the word “privilege.” She equated racial oppressions against African Americans to derogatory comments made to women like her with blond hair.

She issued an apology to the district via a newsletter on Monday. And before Wednesday’s meeting, she released a second and more in-depth apology.

“I made those comments in a failed attempt to cut the tension and discomfort during our meeting, and I admit my own discomfort when it comes to discussing racism,” Doane said. “I also spoke out of ignorance and from what I am realizing is a position of privilege.

“I am truly sorry for my comments, and I realize that my words have hurt others and caused harm within our community as well as causing further division.

“I hope my apology will help us return the focus to our students and to my role as a Board of Education member.”

At the meeting she added that she had “done a lot of soul searching” and “I want to learn.”

Parents who came to Wednesday’s meeting read her apology on their cellphones as they entered the room. Still, many of them signed a petition that had accumulated about 100 signatures calling for Doane to resign from the board.

During the meeting, board member Murdock said the district has been talking about equity for two years and has gotten little accomplished. He chastised the board for voting down the latest training proposal.

“We have work to do,” Murdock said. “Are we willing to vote for a plan that includes discussion of implicit bias, unconscious bias and white privilege? If we don’t believe these things actually exist we are not going to get a plan passed. We have to agree as a group that those things are an issue.”

After the meeting, some parents said they were disappointed.

Cortney Ray, who has two children in the district, said what she heard from board members is that “in order to bring equity work to the district they have to have a perfect plan. I heard that everyone needs to be comfortable, and if it makes them uncomfortable then it is going to be a ‘no.’ But that is when we do our best work, being uncomfortable together.”

Lia McIntosh, who has three children in the district, said, “Our children are suffering. Our children deserve leaders who are learning leaders. It is exhausting to have to advocate for the basic right of learning.”

Others said board members are more concerned about how they are perceived than about getting equity training.

“I think that some of the people on the board were just thinking about themselves, but it should be about the students and the teachers,” said Ariana Tolbert, 18, a recent graduate of Lee’s Summit West High School.

Erica Wilson, who has a 4-year-old special needs child, agreed. “Their preoccupation with how they are perceived should not outweigh concern for the longstanding lack of equity in this district.”

At the end of the meeting, the board went into a closed session to take up a personnel matter. It was not clear whether that discussion would involve Carpenter, who on Thursday had called for the board to buy out his recently extended contract, saying they did not trust him to do his job.

Here is Julie Doane’s full statement issued Wednesday:

In Monday’s “From the Dais” Board of Education newsletter, I included an apology for my comments at our May 16th Board meeting.

That apology did not go far enough.

Since last week, I have done some soul-searching, had discussions with many people and done my best to learn more about topics that made many of us uncomfortable.

I made those comments in a failed attempt to cut the tension and discomfort during our meeting, and I admit my own discomfort when it comes to discussing racism.

I also spoke out of ignorance and from what I am realizing is a position of privilege.

These comments do not reflect what I believe or what is in my heart.

I am realizing — and should have realized already — that there are aspects of my life that I don’t have to think about because I am a white woman.

I am learning that this is a privilege that not everyone is granted — solely based on race.

When I said I did not like the word privilege, I was out of line and I was wrong.

I am truly sorry for my comments, and I realize that my words have hurt others and caused harm within our community as well as causing further division.

They have also created an additional distraction from what is important — preparing each student for success in life.

I hope my apology will help us return the focus to our students and to my role as a Board of Education member.

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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.