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Tension Escalates In Lee's Summit As Parents Question School Board On Issues Of Race

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3

Parents whose kids attend Lee’s Summit schools are growing increasingly frustrated with the school board and superintendent as tensions escalate over issues of equity and race.

It was standing room only Tuesday night as parents demanded the Board of Education justify the need for professional development from a particular diversity consultant.

The school board had already canceled a plan to pay author Glenn Singleton $7,000 to lead an Oct. 3 seminar on equity in schools. Over the weekend, membership in a Facebook group for Lee’s Summit parents swelled as posters expressed concern about Singleton’s consulting firm, Pacific Education Group.

Rumors swirled that hiring Singleton was the first step in implementing a radical racial equity agenda that would divert resources away from advanced classes for high achieving students. 

“Raising the achievement of the poor and disenfranchised is very admirable and should definitely be a goal,” wrote Carla Grider, one of the group’s administrators.

“Anything that can be provided to meet the needs of that segment of the community and sets people up for success is a good thing. But, lowering the highest achievers to bring them down to ‘close the gap’ is not meeting the needs of the high achievers or the lower ones.”

Other people posted comments referring to Dennis Carpenter, the district’s first black superintendent, who tweets under the handle @EquitySupt1, as the “race doctor.”

On Tuesday, Carpenter tried to explain the district’s rationale for putting the diversity consultant's budget-line item on the agenda for approval in the first place.

“The Missouri School Boards Association posted in their September bulletin a list of readings they would recommend of school board members across the state. The No. 1 book on their list was Glenn Singleton’s ‘Courageous Conversations About Race,’” Carpenter said midway through public testimony.

Singleton’s work on systemic inequality and white privilege is highly cited but can be controversial. Some teachers in districts that have hired the Pacific Education Group have complained that Singleton’s training blames white educators for the underperformance of students of color.

Tensions are also high as the district considers boundary changes to relieve overcrowding at Lee’s Summit West, the newest of the district’s three high schools. Although the district is trying to engage the community in the process, it’s likely some families who bought houses in the attendance area for the newest high school will be moved to the oldest high school.

Some posters in the parents' Facebook group accused the school board of trying to distract parents with boundary changes, though conversations about redistricting predate Carpenter and the current school board.

During public testiomony Tuesday night, several speakers conflated the boundary conversation with the conversation about the contract with Pacific Education Group.

“We’re not sure what is the most important thing at hand right now. Is it the boundary changes? Is it equity?” parent Jessica Vandenbos said. “All of that at once is a lot, and the confused mind says no.”

Carpenter reminded the crowd that the school board has identified equity as one of its top priorities.

“I get to raise two brown children,” Carpenter said. “I don’t like it, as your superintendent, knowing there’s a significant gap — regardless of their income or background — that they’re going to experience in relation to their white peers right there in our neighborhood.”

Carpenter and the school board got some support from Hilary Graves, the parent of two children in the district and president of the Parent Teacher Association at Mason Elementary.

“We want every child in every school to receive an equitable education with equitable opportunities,” Graves said, “but we can’t achieve these goals until we have authentic, open conversations about the achievement gaps within our schools.”

But most of the attendees at Tuesday’s school board meeting appeared to agree with Holly Godfrey, who identified herself as a parent of two elementary school students and a middle schooler.

“As a data-driven board, what data have we been given that race is what we’re going to target?” Godfrey asked. “Because I know it’s important, but how is it more important than looking at the equity of a child with special needs or other different abilities?”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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