Michael Ryan

Was the Lee’s Summit school board racist — or caught in a communications nightmare?

Is Lee’s Summit the racist community it’s been made out to be?

In reading the record, in watching the videos and in multiple conversations with some of the key players involved in the contentious decision to begin equity training in its public schools, I simply don’t think so.

That caricature was sure paraded naked past a national audience after the school board’s initial 4-3 vote in May rejecting a nearly $100,000 contract with an equity training consultant out of St. Louis.

Certainly there were racist elements that roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth. At one point, Superintendent Dennis Carpenter — who is black and has championed equity in the mostly white district — felt so threatened that he was provided security. All principled folks in the region are profoundly sorry that happened to Dr. Carpenter. Perhaps that’s of some minimal consolation — as is the redeeming 6-1 board vote earlier this month to approve the contract.

And yet, the irretrievably racist are more reprehensible than representative.

Even as of this writing, puzzlement abounds in this community and in its various media as to why the school board seemed so averse to equity training for school staff and leaders. Unwilling to merely assume the worst and accept, at face value, the narrative that either Lee’s Summit or its school board is racist, I did some digging.

My bottom line conclusion: Communication, or the lack thereof, had as much to do with this blowup as race or reluctance.

The board members who initially rejected the contract with Educational Equity Consultants could have done an infinitely better job of explaining themselves at that fateful May meeting. One of them later said their hesitance was about this specific contract, not to equity training itself. They were duty-bound to make that clearer. The failure to do so was a catastrophic, self-inflicted error on their part, for which they’ve paid a considerable price.

They also may have failed to see, until a combative work session filled with recriminations after the May meeting, that the equity train was most assuredly leaving the station one way or another. This era of inclusion we are living in is the inevitable, long-delayed extension of the civil rights movement.

At the same time, it’s possible the ground wasn’t tilled enough in this case — that the equity movement, though arguably self-evident, requires more and better explanation. It’s also quite possible the superintendent could have done more to sell this particular contract. Skeptical board members, for instance, requested a work session on the contract prior to the May meeting and were denied.

In addition, throughout the debate, statements were made that were insensitive and clumsy, to say the least.

“White privilege” may have been another sticking point. It’s a loaded term, and one that is subject to varying interpretations and opinions. Although I’ve spent much of my career promoting equality and justice — and the word “equity” is an exquisite way to address both — I will confess to not giving white privilege much thought until my having landed squarely on the shards of the debate that’s gone on here.

But if the term means that my own long, arduous, uphill path has been smoother than others’ by virtue of the majority status imparted to me by birth, I absolutely buy that. So I must then buy into efforts to ameliorate such disparity going forward.

Ultimately most people will, given the right approach.

Such change just never seems to happen fast enough. Some 100 disgraceful years apart, Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in the same White House to appeal to Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson for what we now call equity. Successive generations are appreciably better off, but are still waiting.

That pace has to change. Communication is the way.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.