Lee’s Summit School Board reverses course, will pay for district-wide equity training

The Lee’s Summit School Board has done an about-face and reversed a decision it made last month regarding equity training for teachers and district staff.

The board in a 6-1 vote Wednesday night agreed to hire Educational Equity Consultants, a St. Louis firm that is training employees in other area districts, including North Kansas City.

Board member Judy Hedrick voted no, saying she did not believe equity training was “inclusive enough in its content or its approach. I don’t think it includes all of our students.”

Hedrick had made the same claim during the board’s public meeting with the firm last month. She was told by a representative of the firm that the equity training would include all students but would first discuss race and the role of white privilege, implicit bias and systemic racism.

That May meeting ended with four board members - Hedrick, Mike Allen, Kim Fritchie and board president Julie Doane - voting against hiring the equity training firm. Allen, Fritchie and Doane changed their vote at Wednesday’s meeting.

Earlier this month, the board promised to try to work out differences that had erupted at recent meetings over hiring a firm to lead the training.

Parents packed the board room for Wednesday night’s special meeting and after the vote celebrated with cheers.

“This was a victory. I am glad the board has taken the responsibility to do what is right for the students,” said Nyauna Cravens, who has two children in the district. “I am proud that citizens of this community came to one accord to recognize what is right for all of us. I truly believe that we are better than we have been portrayed.”

Board members said they changed their minds on the proposal after a two-day retreat where they met with members of the Missouri School Boards Association, who helped a committee of district leaders explain the training’s procedures.

“The good news is that we are making progress,” Superintendent Dennis Carpenter said after the meeting. “Now we are ready to move forward. That is exciting.... When the governing body of a school district commits that gets everyone else to commit. Lots of staff are ready to be engaged.”

The board approved $97,000 worth of training for a year, with an option for it to continue for three additional years.

Wednesday night’s meeting came weeks after Carpenter and the school board agreed to meet in mediation over his contract and his future with the district.

Carpenter, out of frustration over the board rejecting two proposals that he and his leadership staff made to hire a firm to lead equity training, had threatened to leave, asking the board to buy out his contract and hire someone it can trust.

Carpenter, the first African American superintendent in Lee’s Summit, said Wednesday that he had suggested leaving the district because he deeply believed the equity training would improve the quality of education for all students and did not want to get in the way of that happening.

“I am never going to be a barrier to the work for young people. If I become a barrier then I need to have myself removed,” he said.

The board did not take up Carpenter’s future with the district at Wednesday’s meeting.

Attempts to bring racial equity training to the district have fractured the community and the district. Carpenter has been the target of racially charged emails and threats allegedly made by a parent in the district. Lee’s Summit Police investigated the alleged threats to make Carpenter “disappear into the lake.” Police talked to Carpenter and three other people, but were not able to find how the alleged threats emerged.

These aren’t the first disparaging comments directed at Carpenter since he began at the district in 2017.

Carpenter was called “the race doctor” on social media after he proposed that the school board hire a California firm to lead equity training that would focus heaviest on race but include other marginalized groups such as LGBTQ students and those with disabilities.

Some in the community called for his ouster.

The school board approved an equity plan in February 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 black students were disciplined more often, the data showed.

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 the board had yet to approve one of the first steps in the equity plan, to train teachers and staff. Based on national research, school officials concluded that one step toward closing that achievement gap would be equity training, which is becoming increasingly more popular in the nation’s school districts, including in the Kansas City area.

Carpenter said he and the school board would be the first to be trained in Lee’s summit. He expects the training to start by the end of the summer or at the latest in early fall.

Parents said they will be watching closely to make sure the training happens.

“We are going to have to stay on top of it,” said Erica Wilson, who has a son in the district. “We are going to have to stay engaged to make sure the district’s commitment lines up with its action tonight. We need for the learning to get started.”

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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.