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Embattled Lee’s Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter resigns

The Star’s Editorial Board with Lee’s Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter

Star Editorial Board members Toriano Porter and Dave Helling talked with Dr. Dennis Carpenter, superintendent of the Lee's Summit School District, on Wed., Jan. 30, 2019, about fears for his safety following angry discussions in a Facebook group.
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Star Editorial Board members Toriano Porter and Dave Helling talked with Dr. Dennis Carpenter, superintendent of the Lee's Summit School District, on Wed., Jan. 30, 2019, about fears for his safety following angry discussions in a Facebook group.

Lee’s Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, who weathered criticism from the school board and community after proposing racial equity training for the district, has resigned, officials announced Tuesday afternoon.

In a media release, the district said the school board and Carpenter, who was hired two years ago, came to an “agreement” on his employment “after mediation conducted by Kansas City attorney Rik Siro.”

The district will pay him $750,000, part of which will be paid by the district’s insurer. The board had renewed Carpenter’s annual contract in March, agreeing to continue paying him an annual salary of $235,000.

Carpenter and the board declined to comment. The statement said that silence was part of the agreement, which will be made public once it’s signed by Carpenter and the board president.

But a tweet posted on Carpenter’s page Tuesday afternoon included a photo of a statement from the law firm of McGonagle, Spencer and Gahagan. It said Carpenter’s decision was made “after several days of deep reflection about the long-term best interests of the children of the (Lee’s Summit) School District and the philosophical differences with members of the board regarding how to effectively enhance the learning and lives of all children.”

The district announcement thanked Carpenter “for his service to our students, staff and community.” It also said “the Board of Education wants to emphasize that it remains committed to the work of our approved equity plan and the components of the plan.”

Emily Mille_fitted.jpeg
Emily Miller will serve as Lee’s Summit’s acting superintendent.

While the announcement did not say whether Carpenter’s resignation would be effective immediately, it did mention that Emily Miller would serve as acting superintendent. Miller has been the district’s assistant superintendent of operations since 2018 and was assistant superintendent of special services before that. She was a teacher in the district for 10 years before becoming an administrator.

Carpenter is the second consecutive superintendent to resign from Lee’s Summit before serving out his contract. In 2016 former superintendent David McGehee, who at the time was the state’s highest paid superintendent, resigned over a conflict of interest dispute with members of the board. The district payed McGehee $450,000 as he left.

At the beginning of last school year, Carpenter, the district’s first African American superintendent, proposed racial equity training for all employees in the district, a predominantly white and fairly affluent community. He soon became the target of threats.

Parents and other members of the community launched a social media campaign denouncing Carpenter’s proposal and nicknaming him “the race doctor” for making the suggestion.

Other parents spoke out during public discussions about the need for equity training. They talked about students subjected to insensitivity — including some who were made to sing “Pick a Bale of Cotton” during a school performance.

Earlier this year, threats to Carpenter prompted the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office to assign a security detail to his home.

A study commissioned by the district had 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, which is becoming more popular in the nation’s school districts.

In February, the board approved an equity plan for the district. But it couldn’t agree on a plan to train employees.

In October, under community pressure, the board had rejected a recommendation to spend $7,000 to hire a California firm to do short-term equity training of teachers and staff.

In May the board split 4-3 rejecting a second, longer-term training proposal to spend $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.”

Carpenter became so frustrated at the May meeting he told board members to buy out his contract and hire instead someone they trust to operate the district.

Then in June the board did an about-face and voted to hire the equity training firm after all. It also announced it would enter mediation with Carpenter to determine his future with the district.

At the time, 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 district leaders explain the equity training.

“The good news is that we are making progress,” Carpenter had said following that June board 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.”

Carpenter came to the district two years ago from the Hickman Mills school district. During his tenure in Lee’s Summit, the district received its highest state Annual Performance Review scores in its history. Carpenter created the district’s Innovations Track early college program. He also developed a plan on the use of district buildings that included changes to school boundaries.

The district in its statement acknowledged that the last several months have been “difficult with a range of emotions involved, but we know we are up for the challenge before us to push into the future together.”

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