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In Lee's Summit School Board Race, The Big Issue Is Equity

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
The Lee's Summit School Board announced Dennis Carpenter would be the district's next superintendent in January 2017. Carpenter has been a polarizing figure because of his efforts to close the achievement gap for students of color.

Lee’s Summit voters will pick two new school board members Tuesday in an election that could be a referendum of the district’s equity and inclusion work.

The seven-member school board unanimously approved an equity plan in February, and last month they offered Superintendent Dennis Carpenter a one-year contract extension.

But Carpenter, the district’s first black superintendent, has been a polarizing figure in Lee’s Summit because of his efforts to close the achievement gap for students of color. A Facebook group that formed in the fall to discuss school boundary changes has more than 4,000 members, and critiques of Carpenter are common.

“Once we get the right people on the BOE, we can get rid of him,” wrote Steve Lathrop after Carpenter’s contract was extended.

Several parents criticized the equity plan at the March 14 school board meeting.

Jo Ellen Collette, a white parent, complained that it had been “ramrodded” through. She was worried it would mean fewer opportunities for her daughter, who is in the gifted program.

“I have never, ever felt we had racial issues in this town,” Collette said.

But at the same meeting, parents of students of color tried to explain why they feel school district employees need racial bias training.

Daphne Means, who is white, explained that her black son did not want to participate in Colonial Day at his elementary school.

“It invoked feelings of fear, sadness, hatred and ugliness,” Means told the school board. “The truth is, had my child of color been alive during that time, he likely would have been enslaved. He would not have been making candles, singing songs or bobbing for apples, nor would he have been celebrating. He would have been fighting for basic civil rights such as physical safety, proper housing and food.”

Means explained to the principal why her son would not be participating. She said the response she got was polite, but Colonial Day was on the calendar again this year.

Parent Lia McIntosh said there’s more support for Carpenter than it would seem from social media. She pointed out that about a quarter of students in Lee’s Summit schools are children of color, but there has never been a black or Hispanic board member.

“If our school board is not diverse culturally, racially, we are not reflecting our student population nor the families that live in Lee’s Summit. Our school board recognized that when they hired Dr. Carpenter, and I applaud them,” said McIntosh, who is part of Suburban Balance, a coalition of African American families raising kids in the suburbs.

But there are very few members left from the school board who hired Carpenter, and Phyllis Balagna and Bob White didn’t run for re-election. That just leaves Julie Doane, though the four returning members who came onto the board after it hired Carpenter have been generally supportive.

Eight candidates are vying for the two open seats. Lee’s Summit voters can find out more about them in the candidate profiles published by the Chamber of Commerce. The election is Tuesday, April 2.

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

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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