Government & Politics

In Lee’s Summit school district feud, board member and superintendent trade calls to resign

Lee’s Summit school superintendent David McGehee talks to senior citizens in 2014.
Lee’s Summit school superintendent David McGehee talks to senior citizens in 2014.

A feud in the Lee’s Summit School District boiled over into public view this week after a school board member called for the resignation of the district’s top official, David McGehee, the highest paid superintendent in Missouri.

In an unusual move, McGehee responded by sharply criticizing the board member, Bill Baird, and called on him to resign instead. Baird said Wednesday that the superintendent’s demand was “desperate and defiant.”

School board members, elected by the voters, hire and fire superintendents and set the policies they carry out. Superintendents rarely attack board members publicly or call for their resignations.

The back and forth was touched off Monday when Baird, in a letter provided to The Star, accused McGehee and board leaders of using closed meetings to discuss contracts that should have been approved in public view. Baird wrote he has been complaining for months that McGehee’s dealings with a law firm working for the district have been improper.

“Dr. McGehee has been brilliant at times,” Baird wrote in the letter, which was addressed to the public. “But sadly he has become so conflicted that he is no longer following the laws, policies, and direction of the board.”

Although not mentioned in Baird’s letter, the school district’s position has been complicated by the fact that McGehee is dating Shellie Guin, a partner in a law firm that handles much of the district’s legal work, raising questions about a possible conflict of interest.

The complaints also come at a time when the district is negotiating a new contract with McGehee, which could include a raise in McGehee’s $397,000 annual pay.

McGehee responded Tuesday with a written statement in which he denied any wrongdoing. He wrote that all school board meetings, both closed and open to the public, had been conducted correctly and all contracts had been entered into within the bounds of the law.

In calling for Baird to resign, McGehee wrote: “We have a board member who didn’t get his way on a few decisions and is now taking it out in the form of a personal attack on me .… We have learned through Mr. Baird’s brief tenure that one bad apple can spoil the bunch.”

Baird is a real estate broker and owner of Baird Group Real Estate.

Baird was elected to the school board in 2014. He won the general election along with incumbents Terri Harmon and Chris Storms for three at-large seats.

McGehee, asked Wednesday whether he thought his stance against Baird was appropriate, responded: “I don’t think any of this is appropriate. There is no reason why we should be doing any of this the way we are doing this.”

In a rebuttal to McGehee’s call for him to step down, Baird wrote: “Instead of responding to his misrepresentation (in a state audit), law violations, and board policy violations, he diverts attention to me with taunts and jabs.”

Baird’s decision to make his complaints public riled the seven-member board, with at least one member sharing Baird’s concerns. Baird said he decided to alert the public after the board was asked to approve a new three-year contract for McGehee in a recent closed-door meeting without an attorney present to give advice.

Others, including board President Terri Harmon, have said they support McGehee and believe he did nothing wrong.

“There have been no legal or policy violations,” Harmon said.

As for his personal relationship with Guin, McGehee said that he notified board members of that last summer.

“It’s not like we’re hiding it from anybody,” McGehee said in an interview after a board meeting last month. “I don’t find that there’s any conflict of interest.”

McGehee said he has since worked with board members to ensure any district business that affects him is not handled by Guin.

McGehee said Tuesday he has always negotiated his contracts directly with the board — not through an attorney — and that his contract is later reviewed by another attorney at Guin’s firm, but not Guin herself.

Harmon said the school board brought in an outside firm to review the impact of the relationship between McGehee and Guin and decided there was no conflict of interest.

McGehee was hired to lead the Lee’s Summit School District in 2006 after having led the Raymore-Peculiar district for several years. Lee’s Summit is the 10th-largest district in the state, with a budget of approximately $231 million, about 17,700 students and 2,600 employees. His compensation, including annuity and allowed expense, totals $397,000, the most in the state.

The next highest-paid superintendent in Missouri is in Kirkwood, where Thomas Williams’ total package was $302,308. The Kansas City Public Schools superintendent’s total salary package is $286,250.

McGehee has been a public school administrator for more than 20 years and was named Superintendent of the Year by the Missouri Association of School Administrators in 2013.

The new contract now being negotiated for McGehee could increase his pay, which school board members have said is necessary to keep a talented administrator from taking a better deal elsewhere.

Baird wrote that he felt pressured by board leaders to approve a new contract quickly in a closed-door session, without public discussion or an opportunity to review the terms in advance. Board members were told they could not change the terms of the contract anyway, Baird said, because it had already been agreed to.

But other board members denied there was pressure to approve the contract immediately.

That meeting fell into a pattern, Baird said, in which board leadership had been too accommodating to McGehee, skirting the Missouri Sunshine Law by discussing public business in closed meetings, polling board members opinions’ outside of meetings and making contracts with Guin’s law firm without board approval.

Baird is not alone in criticizing some of the district leadership’s dealings with Guin’s law firm. A 2014 report from the Missouri state auditor faulted the school district for not competitively bidding legal services and instead employing Guin’s firm and others without a written agreement.

McGehee satisfied part of the audit when he signed a written agreement with Guin for her to act as a legal counsel for the district. Baird said he objected that the contract was never approved by the school board.

McGehee said that, despite the auditor’s recommendations, the district does not need to bid out its legal services.

Guin said that to avoid violating Missouri Bar rules, she was having other attorneys at her firm do work that dealt with McGehee directly.

As for the district, she said, it would be up to the board members to decide whether there is a conflict of interest.

Some board members said they were satisfied there was no such conflict.

Harmon, the board president, said that after learning of McGehee’s and Guin’s relationship, the board employed a set of protocols to avoid a conflict of interest between McGehee and Guin, whose firm is one of several that do work with the district.

Lee’s Summit does not have a general counsel. Rather each department in the district selects attorneys from the list of firms available depending on specific legal needs. Some firms may be used more frequently than others.

Harmon said she takes her elected office as a fiscal manager of district funds very seriously.

“I look at every single legal bill that comes across our desk to assure there is no padding on the bill,” Harmon said, adding that she is certain that “there is nothing improper going on. I never doubted the integrity of those two individuals.”

Harmon said an outside firm was hired to “take an objective look at protocols … to analyze our situation with Shellie Guin and Dr. McGehee.”

Harmon said she continued to support McGehee as he called for Baird’s resignation.

“This entire situation is unusual and Dr. McGehee has tried for months to work with Mr. Baird who has been unwilling to work within the guidelines we all agree to as board members,” she said. “In this circumstance, I believe Dr. McGehee is doing what he feels is best for the district, its students and staff and I am supportive of his efforts.”

Other board members rejected Baird’s complaints and criticized his decision to go public.

Board member Bob White said he was not aware of any violations of Missouri’s Sunshine Law or board policies.

“As far as I am concerned, all of our discussions have been held in open and (publicly announced) closed sessions,” White said.

Board member Adam Rutherford said he continued to back McGehee and disagreed with Baird’s letter.

“I disagree with coming out and handling the situation in this way,” Rutherford said. “We’ve done a lot of work and had a lot of success with Dr. McGehee. He’s done amazing things for the district. It’s just disappointing to see.”

Board member Chris Storms said McGehee has his support as well.

“We’re doing great things in the school district,” Storms said, “and it’s because of the leadership of Dr. McGehee.”

Board member Phyllis Balagna said she hadn’t read Baird’s letter and declined to comment.

When it came time to discuss McGehee’s next contract, board member Julie Doane joined Baird in asking for legal counsel, she said.

“I don’t know if that is legal, and that is why I wanted a lawyer,” Doane said. “I think that’s the safest way to be. The superintendent was fine with that.”

The Missouri School Boards Association said it is typical for most small districts in the state to not have legal counsel present during superintendent contract negotiations or renewals.

But for bigger districts, including Lee’s Summit, it would not be unusual to have counsel, “because those contracts typically are more complex,” said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the association.

Beyond keeping Guin away from McGehee’s contracts and other business that affects the superintendent, district officials declined to specify what else their protocols required to protect against a conflict of interest, or what outside firm reviewed and approved of the arrangement. They also declined to say how much the district paid the firm.

But even if the protocols are well-drafted and followed to the letter, legal ethics experts cast doubt on the wisdom of the course set by McGehee, Guin and the school board.

As a member of the law firm, Guin still benefits from the school district’s business, said Michael Downey, a St. Louis attorney who specializes in ethics issues.

Documents obtained by The Star show the district paid Guin Mundorf more than $114,000 in 2013, more than $143,000 in 2014 and more than $168,000 in 2015.

The relationship becomes a matter of public interest because taxpayer money is involved, Downey said.

“If you’re a school superintendent, that’s the public’s money,” he said. “Why do we have a no-bid contract where the lawyer basically sets their own rates? And why are we now taking these steps?”

Even if the school board is satisfied with the arrangement, the relationship poses hazards to the attorney’s professional standing and the public trust, said Jamila Jefferson-Jones, an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who teaches courses on professional responsibility.

The relationship between an attorney who represents the district and the superintendent “makes it very difficult to draw the line between where the attorney’s whole loyalty is placed.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” she said.

Still, board member White said he has no concerns about the relationship between McGehee and Guin.

“Myself and other board members feel like there is no conflict,” he said. “We have no concerns other than the well-being of our students and we feel Dr. McGehee is doing a great job in that regard.”

The board has scheduled a closed-door meeting Monday. The subject of the meeting is unknown.

The spectacle of a superintendent calling for a board member’s resignation is “unusual” said Ghan. Ghan said that while a single board member has “no authority at all,” a majority on the school board is the ultimate power in the district.

On the other had, Ghan said, the superintendent has no authority to decide whether a school board member should resign.

“Board members answer to the voters.”

A letter released by Lee’s Summit School Board member Bill Baird, calling for the superintendent to resign

Dear Lee’s Summit Citizens,

In my two years as a board member for the LSR7 School District I have been greatly disappointed at the closed culture and lack of accountability at the school board level.

Despite my many requests for more transparency, the superintendent, Dr. David McGehee, and board leadership, continue to cultivate an environment where members are not allowed to voice their opinions and concerns without scorn, animosity, and accusations of misconduct. They avoid public discussion by using limited public agendas, one to one consensus taking, and undisclosed closed session agendas. Governance decisions are being made on the board’s behalf without board approval. These are all violations of Missouri Statutes, Board Policy, and the Board Superintendent Agreement.

My objections to all of these violations are met with resentment from the superintendent and board leadership. Justification has been given that this is the way things have been done in the past. In February, I presented to the board that Dr. McGehee has either violated Missouri Statutes or misrepresented to the Missouri Auditor in the 2014 audit regarding the handling of the school district’s legal services provider. Based on the superintendent’s response in the audit, I requested to see the LSR7 “legal services agreement” with our primary legal counsel and to date have not been presented any such document. This agreement with our primary legal counsel would need to have been approved by the board. Dr. McGehee and our board president, Terri Harmon, have stated they don’t need board approval for our legal service providers, while our board attorney would not take a position. I strongly disagreed and cited Missouri statutes, board policy and the findings of the 2014 Audit to support my claims.

The superintendent and board leadership have gone to great lengths to keep these discussions in closed session for many months. These efforts to prevent and limit discussion in the open session regarding our legal services provider as well as efforts to withhold information from board members between meetings are violations of sunshine laws and our Board Superintendent Agreement. There has been no accountability behind closed doors, which is why we have sunshine laws.

Who we use for our legal services is an open session topic just as it would be if we were discussing our financial services provider, our health insurance service provider, or any service provider where we are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the case of Guin Mundorf, LLC we paid over $150,000 in the year 2015. The Missouri Statutes and our board policy requires us to obtain competitive bids for such an aggregate amount of services from one provider. Our superintendent and board have not solicited proposals for our primary legal services provider in nearly six years as per our 2014 Missouri Audit.

In closed sessions these discussions and others involving our legal counsel have resulted in Dr. McGehee erupting in angry outbursts, making slanderous accusations against board members and against one of the most highly respected members from the community. He also has targeted board members with inappropriate tweets and Instagram posts (and consequentially deleted them). Board leadership has supported his behavior rather than hold him accountable.

All of the preceding actions and behaviors by Dr. McGehee and board leadership are unequivocally unacceptable; yet immediately following these discussions President Terri Harmon called on the board to approve a new three-year contract for the superintendent that would presumably have escalating compensation. Mrs. Harmon stated she would review the contract with the board, then wanted board approval in closed session. Board members were not briefed nor given the contract to review ahead of the meeting. Legal counsel was not present to advise the board. I objected that we needed legal counsel present to advise us and help negotiate a new contract. Mrs. Harmon claimed we had already agreed to a four-year contract for the superintendent, so we were not to change the terms of the contract in a significant manner. I objected to any such agreement to a four-year contract because that would have been yet another violation of the Missouri Statutes. Dr. McGehee, (who should not have been present for these discussions) urged the board to move forward with a decision quickly. However, with the support of other board members we demanded that we have our legal counsel present to negotiate a new contract. All of these closed session maneuvers are an embarrassment to our board and a disservice to the taxpayers.

The board is deeply divided over the actions of Dr. McGehee. While I hold the board leadership responsible for enabling the superintendent, not holding him accountable, and carrying out his agendas, it is Dr. McGehee’s actions that have driven me to make a call to action to you the taxpayers and stakeholders of Lee's Summit. Dr. McGehee has been brilliant at times in his tenure for the Lee’s Summit School District, but sadly he has become so conflicted that he is no longer following the laws, policies, and direction of the board. I am calling for the resignation of superintendent Dr. David McGehee, so that the board may begin a new era of transparency and accountability. I urge you to make your opinions heard on this important matter so that our board members will know how you feel as our board leadership is pressuring the board to approve a new contract immediately.


Bill Baird

LSR7 School Board Member

Lee’s Summit school superintendent David McGehee provided this statement about school board member Bill Baird’s letter

It is against every fiber of my being as a school district leader to write what I am about to, but Mr. Bill Baird’s false accusations leave me with no other option; the record must be corrected. Let me start by unequivocally stating that neither the members of the board of education nor I have been anything less than transparent and within the laws governing public bodies at all times. The positive culture of this board and the seriousness with which they perform their voluntarily elected service has been an example for others across our state for decades. R‐7 boards have been recognized for excellence in leadership in areas such as governance, finance, ethics, and student achievement. There is no cultivation of an environment where questions and open discussion are frowned upon. Despite enjoying years of success and positive culture, we have learned through Mr. Baird’s brief tenure on the board that one bad apple can spoil the bunch.

Mr. Baird’s misbehavior, as evidenced in our most recent open session and in team meetings, has generated a climate of distrust, personal attacks and ambush tactics. Despite continuous efforts by fellow board members, district leadership, staff, and hired facilitators; we have been unable to overcome the negative impact Mr. Baird’s presence has had on our school system. The Board/Superintendent Agreement in place has served this district since the early days of Dr. Tony Stansberry. Mr. Baird claims violation of this agreement on my part when he, in fact, is the violator. However, to demonstrate would require me to engage in the same violations. Instead, I offer the following facts:  The Missouri State Auditor identified a concern that our legal providers could charge the district whatever they wanted because we did not have rate schedules in place. We immediately put rate schedules in place with all of the 8 or 9 legal service providers that the district uses. These firms include local businesses such as the Dodig Law Firm and Chinnery, Evans, & Nail. Mr. Baird (and the entire board) has been given copies of these legal service agreements. 

I committed to Mr. Baird and the entire board a week ago that we would update these fee agreements and run them through board approval prior to July 1, 2016. Legal services are not required to be bid out by law, and none of the 8‐9 firms we work with indicated that they were when submitting their fee agreement back to the district. All board meetings have been posted appropriately and discussions have remained within the areas allowed to be discussed under the law. No illegal votes or discussions have occurred, period. 

Staff members have the freedom to contact any lawyer from any firm with which we have fee schedules, at their own discretion and with no direction from district leadership. 

Mr. Baird has been unable to identify a single real concern or any negative impact my personal life has had on district operations. In the summer of 2015 I met with every board member, including Mr. Baird, to talk to them about my desire to date one of the many attorneys who works with staff on legal issues for the district. Every board member, including Mr. Baird, was supportive of my pursuing that relationship as long as the right protocols were put in place. No one expressed any objection or concern.

Protocols were immediately developed by the district and the law firm involved. Those protocols have been reviewed by a respectable, independent legal party with years of experience in legal ethics, and the board has been assured that there are no concerns with my personal relationship as long as the protocols are followed. The protocols have been followed without exception, and no concerns have been raised about their content. Just prior to walking into a closed board meeting on February 18, a KC Star reporter appeared unannounced and began questioning me about the confidential agenda item that was scheduled for the meeting. The fact that someone had orchestrated this tactic was not well received by me.

I post a variety of things on my social media that represent my feelings, interactions with parents and students, help students deal with technology issues, share what I learn from colleagues, provide useful and educational information, and even predict winners of NCAA Basketball games. My current contract with the board is for three years. I have never had a four‐year contract with the board. The board, including Mr. Baird unanimously approved my contract.

The board indicated that they did not want me to retire and added a longevity incentive to stay in the district past my retirement eligibility. This was also approved unanimously by the board. I respect differences of opinion, healthy debate, and openness of process. Unfortunately, that is not what we are experiencing here. Rather, we have a board member who didn’t get his way on a few decisions and is now taking it out in the form of a personal attack on me. Just 11 months ago he was approving a contract aimed at keeping me from leaving the district. Since that time, we have passed a bond issue, increased student achievement, implemented the largest one‐to‐one initiative in the region, and broken ground on the Missouri Innovation Campus. Today, he inexplicably seeks my resignation. Despite efforts on every front to compartmentalize the distractions and negativity and to minimize the adverse impact Mr. Baird is having on our district, we are failing. I fear that the damage will be so substantial and far reaching that we will not be able to recover if action is not taken. So, Bill Baird and citizens of the R‐7 Community, our R‐7 Family of staff and students; I say the call to action is for YOU Mr. Baird to be held accountable.

This community elected you to do a job and you are lost in anger and other emotions that have clouded your judgment and affected your behavior so extremely that you are a detriment to the R‐7 School District and with the writing of your letter, the entire Lee’s Summit community and surrounding areas we serve. I also urge our community, staff, and students to hold Mr. Baird accountable and ask for his resignation so that we might RETURN to an era of traditional excellence, where transparency has been recognized and awarded, where people understand how to work together collaboratively toward what is truly best for the children and our community. This is what I’ve been doing for ten years with great results, the last two despite your misbehaviors. Step aside and let this district thrive in its tradition of excellence and the innovation that has been sparked through leadership as we challenge ourselves to get better each and every day for each and every student we serve.

Bill Baird provided a written response to David McGehee’s rebuttal

Dr. McGehee’s response to my statement is desperate and defiant. Instead of responding to his misrepresentation in the 2014 Audit, law violations, and board policy violations, he diverts attention to me with taunts and jabs. He even has the audacity to state publicly that he got rate schedules from legal service providers when in reality his exact words in the audit were “The District has now developed a legal services agreement…” with each of our legal firms.

These agreements were executed by Dr. McGehee without board approval which violates Missouri Statute 162.511.1. He goes further by stating that staff is free to use any of these legal service providers that the board has not approved. He states that the entire board has been given copies of these agreements. The entire board can tell you that this is simply not true. The board received one agreement with Chinnery, Evans, and Nail, but we have not used that law firm once in the two years I have been on the board. These agreements have not been presented nor are they available to the the members via our in-house software Board Docs. In the two years since the audit, Dr. McGehee and board leadership still have not sought proposals for our legal services providers as the Auditor recommends. The Auditor recommended these items be addressed to be in compliance with state laws and board policies. The public has to be wondering why Dr. McGehee is willing to misrepresent to the Auditor and violate laws when it comes to who the district uses for our legal service providers.

With regard to Dr. McGehee’s last contract. I had major reservations about its structure and legality. I have documentation (emails) appealing to our board president at the time, our current president, and current vice president before we approved it in closed session. Our current president and vice president rejected my concerns and refused to engage with me about it. Our board president at the time said he would talk to our legal counsel, Shellie Guin. I responded that I had reservations about her partiality towards Dr. McGehee, but he assured me she negotiated on behalf of the board. Ms. Guin never responded to my concerns. She also did not show up to present the contract to the board. She now states no one ever talked to her about my concerns. The public must be wondering what kind of culture does the board have to not talk openly about these issues.

With regard to other statements made by Dr. McGehee he continues to lack transparency and contradict himself. He states “there were no concerns” or “no one expressed any objection” in many of his responses. The public must be wondering how I have misbehaved as a board member if I was never objecting to all these issues.