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Feuding over race issue, Lee’s Summit superintendent and board head to mediation

Lee’s Summit superintendent’s plan for racial equity leads some to call for his ouster

A leader of the Lee's Summit NEA teachers union advised the school board against extending the contract of Superintendent Dennis Carpenter.
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A leader of the Lee's Summit NEA teachers union advised the school board against extending the contract of Superintendent Dennis Carpenter.

Three weeks after the Lee’s Summit school superintendent threatened to leave his post, he and the school board have agreed to meet in mediation over his contract and his future with the district.

They will also try to work out differences that erupted at recent meetings over hiring a firm to lead racial equity training for teachers and staff.

“The Board and Dr. Carpenter intend to schedule the mediation as soon as possible,” said a notice from the board to staff and parents this week. “The Board and Dr. Carpenter appreciate the community’s patience while they work through this process.”

At a meeting in May, the board backed away from Carpenter’s second proposal to hire a firm to lead equity and inclusion training.

Carpenter, Lee’s Summit’s first African American superintendent, accused the board of not trusting him to lead the district through the equity plan that his administrative staff designed and the board had approved.

Carpenter told the board to fulfill the terms of his contract, or, in other words, buy him out and “find somebody this board can trust.”

Since the beginning of the school year, attempts to hire a firm to lead equity training have been fraught with controversy in this predominantly white and fairly affluent suburb.

On one side, Carpenter was called “the race doctor” on social media. On the other side, some parents talked about racially insensitive instances, such as the time elementary school children were made to sing “Pick a Bale of Cotton” during a school performance.

In October the board rejected a recommendation to spend $7,000 to hire a California firm for short-term equity training.

Last month the board split 4-3 on a second, longer-term proposal, voting against spending $97,000 to hire 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.”

The firm is already training employees in other area districts, including North Kansas City.

Some Lee’s Summit board members said they did not like that training would deal with “white privilege” and that it seemed is if the training would emphasize race but not other marginalized groups. Some board members suggested the district’s own staff do the training.

In discussing white privilege, board president Julie Doane equated dealing with assumptions made about her because she is blond to the racial oppression suffered by black people. Parents signed a petition calling for her removal. She later apologized and said she “spoke out of ignorance” and realized her words “hurt others and caused harm” in the community.

Doane was not available Wednesday to comment on the mediation, Carpenter’s contract or how the board might move forward on its equity plan.

The district developed the 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.

Based on national research, school officials concluded that one step toward closing that gap would be equity training, a move that is underway in many of the nation’s school districts, and is included in the Every Student Succeeds Act , the main federal law for K-12 public education.

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