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Lee's Summit Board Of Education Defends Superintendent Pick At Public Forum

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Hickman Mills Supt. Dennis Carpenter takes questions at a Lee's Summit community forum. Carpenter is leaving Hickman Mills at the end of the school year to take the top administrator job in Lee's Summit.

The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District will pay Hickman Mills Supt. Dennis Carpenter $235,000 for the 2017-18 school year.

That’s more than Carpenter’s current $185,000 base salary, but it’s substantially less than his predecessor, David McGehee, was making. With a compensation package of $395,000, McGehee was the top paid administrator in the state of Missouri when he resigned last year.

At a special session Wednesday night, Board of Education member Bill Baird addressed headlong speculation that the buyout of McGehee’s contract affected the district’s ability to pay its next superintendent top dollar.

“We are a district in fantastic financial standing,” Baird said, adding that the district’s financials had to be thoroughly vetted before a deal on the Missouri Innovation Campus could be struck.

But the rumors started almost immediately after the district announced it would hire Carpenter away from Hickman Mills.

People wanted to know how after a nationwide search, the district ended up with the guy from the school district next door.

“We’ve all been called stupid. We’ve all been called incompetent. We’ve been called an embarrassment to the community,” board member Phyllis Balagna said.

Balagna says she only got to revel in the excitement of having hired Carpenter “for about a day” before media reports surfaced that he had been named in several age discrimination lawsuits in Hickman Mills.

That’s why Carpenter and the school board decided to call Wednesday’s meeting. An attorney for the district explained that it’s standard practice to serve a superintendent anytime a lawsuit is filed and such lawsuits are commonplace in Missouri.

Carpenter acknowledged that not every decision he’s made in Hickman Mills has been popular.

“If you do something that people don’t like, you have to do 20 things that are positive before it starts to overshadow that thing that people didn’t like,” he said. 

Then Carpenter talked about being the district’s first black superintendent.

“Yes, you saw Dr. Carpenter in an ‘I can’t breathe’ hoodie,” he said of a Facebook photo that’s been circulating. “Yes, Dr. Carpenter is a black male. He can’t take that skin off. He’s raising a black son.”

Baird told Carpenter he’d heard some teachers in Hickman Mills, a majority black district, felt embarrassed to be white.

Carpenter replied that wasn’t his intention, though he stood by comments he’s made in the past about black kids needing to learn from black educators.

“Leadership is so situational,” he said. “Situations determine and drive leadership.”

Carpenter has said his first few months in Lee’s Summit would look very different than they did in Hickman Mills. He told Baird he wanted to visit every building in the district at least twice.

“We’ve got a lot of buildings,” Baird replied.

The Lee’s Summit Board of Education will hold its regular meeting Thursday night.

Elle Moxley covers Missouri schools and politics for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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