The past president of the Lee’s Summit school board says it will be hard for the district to attract qualified superintendent candidates after parting ways with the last two leaders.
“We are not a desirable destination district for quality candidates if they can expect to get treated the same way the community has treated superintendents in the past few years,” Terri Harmon, who was on the school board when Dennis Carpenter was hired in 2017, wrote in a letter to current board members this week.
Carpenter, the district’s first black superintendent, resigned Tuesday after months of racial tension over an equity plan and diversity training. The district is paying him $750,000. The superintendent before Carpenter, David McGehee, got $450,000 when he stepped down with three years to go on his contract.
Harmon sent her letter to board members on Monday afternoon before they went into closed session to discuss personnel matters. The meeting was widely speculated to be a mediation with Carpenter, who in May told the board to release him from his contract if they did not trust him to lead the equity work.
“Most of you were not on the board at the time we conducted the last superintendent search,” Harmon wrote.
The candidate pool we were given to select from when Dr. Carpenter was hired was small. Of six candidates the recruiting company was able to encourage to apply for the opening, only two had experience in districts that came anywhere close to the size and complexity of LSR7. In the meeting where we saw the candidate names for the first time, I asked the recruiting company what would happen if we didn't come to agreement on one of the six candidates. They shared with the board that even though they had tried to get more top tier and experienced candidates to apply, none were willing to because of what had happened publicly in Lee's Summit in its treatment of the previous superintendent. And what happened in the past pales in comparison to what has been witnessed publicly in recent months.
Harmon said Lee's Summit was lucky to get a candidate as qualified as Carpenter in that poll, given how McGehee left. He resigned after months of controversy about his compensation — he was one of the highest paid superintendents in the state — and a relationship he was having with an attorney at one of the district’s law firms. Harmon, who supported McGehee, stepped down as board president after feuding with Bill Baird, now mayor of Lee’s Summit.
On Thursday, during the first board meeting since Carpenter resigned, a line of black parents stood up to urge the district to stay the course on the equity work he started.
“I’d like to take a moment to publicly acknowledge what an exceptional leader we had in our former superintendent,” said parent Erica Wilson, whose 4-year-old son is in the district’s pre-K program, Great Beginnings. “His exit from this district is a huge loss for many of us because we had a really courageous champion for marginalized children.”
As she spoke, a clock on TV monitors throughout the room counted down three minutes, and during the business session that preceded the meeting, several board members expressed a desire to limit when and why the public could comment at future meetings.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.