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Answering questions about Board of Education - from Board President Terri Harmon

Answering questions about Board of Education - from Board President Terri Harmon

April 01, 2016
7:01 p.m.

To Lee’s Summit R-7 School District Patrons,

Over the past few weeks you may have seen news articles and social media posts about concerns one Board of Education member raised about operations in the Lee’s Summit School District.  As the current President of the Board of Education, I wanted to take a moment to assure you that the Board of Education has always taken our governance role as elected officials very seriously and we are addressing all issues and concerns raised following the law and established procedures.

Governing a school district is complex. Managing it is even more complex. Making it the best it can be requires trust at a variety of levels. Students need to trust their teachers. Parents need to trust teachers and administrators to keep their kids safe and provide them with the best education possible. Teachers need to trust administrators to provide guidance and resources so they can focus on their students. Administrators need to trust the Board of Education to provide thoughtful and professional governance. The public also needs to trust the Board of Education to provide oversight and ensure the professionals working for our district are supported and held accountable. That trust has always been strong in our district.

Differences of opinions do happen. Between students and teachers, teachers and administrators, administrators and Board of Education members and even among board members themselves. Dealing with those differences of opinions professionally fosters the trust that is critical to good governance and management, allowing the school district to maintain a level of excellence that supports our students, staff and ultimately the community.

I wanted to address a few questions that have been voiced recently to try to provide reassurance to the public so they can continue to trust the elected Board of Education as a whole. Together, we are all working hard to make sure our district continues to be well managed and well governed.

Question: Have any laws been broken or policies been violated?

Answer: No. Board of Education and school district administration are held to strict and detailed laws governing how business is conducted, what should be discussed in a closed confidential meeting and what has to be discussed in an open public meeting. Those laws are clear and we abide by them. We have closed meetings where legally required and hold open board meetings and board work sessions. Materials for our open sessions are shared on our website for anyone to view. We always have and will continue to follow the law about what can and cannot be discussed in public.

Question: Is there a closed culture in the school district? 

Answer: No. The school district is a large organization – in fact it is the largest employer in the Lee’s Summit community. Lots of decisions have to be made every day. The Board of Education’s policies, which are discussed and voted on in public, give staff the guidelines on how to handle daily decisions that have to be made to run the schools and educate students. That is why the School District employs highly qualified administrators and managers to help run this very large and complex organization. As Board Members we are involved in different committees and efforts that allow us to learn more details about specific areas of operations, but we also receive recommendations from administrative staff based on their expertise. If every one of our seven board members was involved in decision making across all schools and departments, the district would not be able to function. Does that mean there is a closed culture where opinions and questions are not welcomed – absolutely not.

Question: Did the Board of Education take action when they learned of the potential for conflict of interests between the Superintendent and a lawyer at one of the firms that provides legal advice and representation.

Answer: Yes and immediately. Dr. McGehee appropriately notified every board member late last summer and the administration immediately implemented procedures to guard against any conflict of interest. The board discussed and monitored the situation regularly. The procedures were followed, and no concerns over conflict of interest arose. The board decided to take an additional step to ensure that best practices were being followed and hired an independent legal ethics expert to review the procedures. That expert found the procedures to be lawful and appropriate to prevent conflict of interests. I assure you the individuals involved and the entire board takes their responsibility in this area very seriously. The Board of Education is taking appropriate steps to make sure that district staff has access to the best legal representation while preventing any conflict of interest with any law firm or vendor with which we do business. We will continue that focus and commitment to our patrons.

Question: Is the same law firm working on Dr. McGehee’s contract?

Answer: No. At no time after Dr. McGehee and Ms. Guin began their personal relationship has the firm or any of its attorneys worked on Dr. McGehee’s contract.

Question: Have board members been chastised or scorned for voicing their opinions?

Answer: In the nearly 10 years I have been involved with the district both as a board member and as a volunteer, I have never witnessed a Board of Education member being chastised, scorned or dismissed for asking questions or voicing their opinions. Questions have been answered and alternative points of view offered in response to board members’ questions and opinions. Conversations have been redirected so meetings did not violate sunshine laws. But I have never sensed a willful or malicious attempt to lash out at a board member. Sometimes hearing alternative perspectives and learning facts that are different can be difficult, but those situations have always been handled as tactfully and professionally as possible.

Question: How is Dr. McGehee’ salary determined?

Answer: The Board of Education has thoughtfully and deliberately established Dr. McGehee’s salary and compensation package over the years to reward him for excellent performance and solid leadership. Each year seven elected board members evaluate his performance, provide feedback and evaluate whether or not the current contract and compensation package is reflective of the value being provided to the district. It is not one person’s decision, but a vote and discussion that includes the entire Board of Education. Dr. McGehee is compensated for his leadership and experience and his salary package is comparable to other executives that lead large companies throughout the region. In fact, Dr. McGehee’s base salary before any benefits are paid is almost identical to the salary just offered to the new superintendent in the Kansas City Missouri School District. Individuals may have different opinions on whether or not they personally agree with the decisions of the board, but I would like to assure the public that the Board considers all aspects of the superintendent salary decision very seriously. One of the focuses since I have been involved in the district is to maintain stability in the leadership of our district so the superintendent’s office doesn’t have a revolving door as other districts sometimes experience. Constantly changing leadership has an indirect cost to an organization that far surpasses the direct cost of finding and keeping a qualified leader.

It is unfortunate that the drama of the last few weeks has occurred. We are working together to continue to oversee the school district and address both the public’s and individual Board member’s concerns in the most appropriate way possible. Will we all agree on every decision? Probably not. Will those decisions be made deliberately and legally? I can answer that question with an emphatic yes. Can the community trust the Board of Education to ensure the legacy of excellence in public education in our community continues? I hope so, we will do our best to earn and maintain that trust. 

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  1. John Easley says:
    April 2nd, 2016 at 03:44
    Explain to me again how he is worth a $400,000 contract. You say his salary is comparable to the salaries of those in the area that lead large companies. Please explain how a public school system is a company? If it is, I'll gladly stop paying my taxes. Last I checked, one was supposed to take jobs in the public sector for the personal satisfaction. Apparently it's actually to get a benefits package equal to the POTUS. You also mention that his salary is comparable to the KC school district. Which one is larger? And which one is desperate need of leadership to turn the district around. Long and short is this. He's being paid far better than superintendents in Kansas and Missouri. At what point do you decide to be responsible with the money of taxpayers?
  2. Joshua Buehre says:
    April 2nd, 2016 at 16:32
    Dear Ms. Harmon,
    I do understand complex organizations. I agree that governing and managing the district can be and is complex. I do trust that the teachers and administrators want to keep our children safe and are interested in and support providing the best education possible. What other choice do I have? I am turning my children over to the district to teach them and to care for them nearly 9 months every year. The “leader” of this organization, that you continue to support and hold in the highest regard, is the true kink in the linchpin. He doesn’t appear to foster positive relationships. Many people that I have spoken with are afraid to speak their opinion for fear of retaliation. Trust has always been strong in the district with the majority of the community supporting the wishes of the Board of Education (BOE) and the BOE respecting the wishes of the community. It seems that the tide has shifted a bit. The loyalty of the BOE is now with the Superintendent and trust in the community is waning.
    The BOE cannot exist without the support of the community. Each member is elected to their position because the citizens have a belief that they will represent them responsibly regarding issues that arise and have the vision to prevent issues from becoming problems. The school district wouldn’t exist without the support of the community; the school district doesn’t make the community exist. Our district is great because of parental involvement in our children’s lives and because of the communication between school teachers and school administrators. I don’t want the BOE to lose sight of the fact that they are responsible for listening to this group.
    Can you tell me what the relationship is like between Dr. McGehee and teachers and administrators? Can you tell me what Dr. McGehee has done to foster communication between parents, teacher and administrators? We need an effective communicator and leader. We want a leader that exemplifies kindness, caring and compassion while understanding that not all desires can be met. We don’t want or need a leader that replies with “knee-jerk” reactions to criticism and has skin so thin that he cannot control what he says publicly to a member of the BOE. Dr. McGehee had criticism and then came back with an “apology” to try to save face. I am certain that if he can say those things publicly, similar reactions behind “closed doors” are much more severe and personal.
    You answered each of the questions emphatically “NO” regarding various issues that were brought up. If you are willing to openly answer each of these questions with such certainty, I believe it is time for an audit, so that the community is comfortable with the actions and interactions of the BOE and Superintendent.
    The relationship with Dr. McGehee and Shellie Guin is not just a relationship with an attorney at a law firm that the district uses. Ms. Guin is a partner in the law firm that the district uses. This is clearly a conflict of interest. Opinions of Dr. McGehee are certainly conveyed to his girlfriend and although Ms Guin is not directly representing, she certainly is indirectly representing and influencing the direction of her staff. This would be a conflict of interest, maybe not directly, but indirectly.
    I don’t understand how compensation for Dr. McGehee should be commensurate with a CEO that leads a large company. Large companies are profit driven and the CEO’s position is fully funded by the revenue that is generated from sales and services that the large company creates. Dr. McGehee’s salary is completed funded by tax payer dollars and the majority of those dollars are from the members of the community. To compare the job of a Superintendent to the job of a CEO may be similar by function alone, not through funding. It is not fiscally responsible to pay a Superintendent a salary that is similar to the CEO of a company because revenue for the district does not increase with success of the district. If Dr. McGehee wishes to be compensated as a CEO of a large company, he should seek out such a position and leave the district.
    Finally, I agree that there will never be agreement on every issue, but I will never agree that Dr. McGehee is a “good leader” and your continued support of him means that you too have lost my support.
    The qualities of a great man are “vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation, and profundity of character.” – Dwight Eisenhower
  3. Sherri Mansfield says:
    April 3rd, 2016 at 19:27
    Dear Ms. Harmon,
    In your first letter, entitled, "Integrity" you appeared enamored of Dr. McGehee, and any subsequent responses from you only leads up to believe it to be true. You've penned yet another ridiculous defense of a man whom at this point, is indefensible. To try and fill us with reassurance that you, as Board President, are leading the Board in an honest and sincere manner, is, quite frankly, laughable. You, along with every other board member, only learned of Dr. McGehee's relationship with Ms. Guin when they were both ready to tell you, and NOT when it first began. Please don't try to feed the citizens of Lee's Summit such nonsense; it's assuming we were all born yesterday; and to think you did not take steps to immediately terminate the law firm and ask Ms. Guin to recuse herself, leaving her firm to continue handling legal affairs of any kind with the school district, is preposterous!
    Ms. Guin's firm handles matters of Special Education as well; to think there have been parents who have children with disabilities who've approached Dr. McGehee and the BOE with concerns about their child's educational rights; are they to blindly believe no private information regarding their child has been passed on to Ms. Guin in a effort to quickly thwart any potential lawsuits? Are they to believe FERPA isn't violated in the privacy of their relationship? So, you must understand why this goes further than just Superintendent salary negotiations.
    On the subject of salary negotiations, my question would be, was Ms. Guin ever involved in salary negotiations, or negotiations of any kind, PRIOR to the revelation of their relationship? And, if she was NOT involved, what attorney was involved? Transparency on this issue, please. If you cannot give us the name of the attorney involved Dr. McGehee's salary negotiations, then the citizens of Lee's Summit are led to believe NO attorney was involved. When a Superintendent of ANY school district has a salary that rivals the President of the United States, a BOE closed door session in which only the BOE and Superintendent are present, is most certainly not enough, and leads to questionable ethics are the part of the BOE and Superintendent. A school board should make sure the superintendent signs the negotiated contract in open session so that there is no public misunderstanding of what was agreed upon. As far as I know, this was not done. If this is the case, I would question it as a violation of Sunshine Law, if citizens were not given notice of a negotiation for a salary increase or alteration of contract terms.
    Our Superintendent has created a culture of hostility, resentment, and mistrust. You have tried so eloquently to gloss over Dr. McGehee's temper and his ability to become extremely defiant and angry when matters of opinion don't go his way. He has made it extremely difficult for any member of the BOE to speak out and question his decisions and vision. You stated in your original letter that Dr. McGehee has made the district what it is today; it's a brazen statement considering the very huge footsteps in which he had to follow. Dr. Stansberry has a building named after him, and for good reason. He made the district what it is today--and on less than half the salary of the current Superintendent.
  4. John Williams says:
    April 4th, 2016 at 13:23
    I'm not nearly as eloquent as the Board President and a couple of the folks that commented. I'll just say that this whole business of the Superintendent and his girl-friend lawyer is inappropriate on so many levels. It should have never been allowed and agreed to by the school board. Interesting how the board hired an "independent legal ethics expert" to review something that shouldn't have happened in the first place. My taxpayer's dollars helped pay for this "expert", just another example of wasted money. The Superintendent should have had the integrity and intelligence to realize that he was in a serious conflict of interest situation, and if he was not able to back out of it, he should have resigned and found another position.
  5. Jean Davis says:
    April 8th, 2016 at 14:10
    Ms. Harmon,
    In reference to Bill Baird's second revelation re: LSR7 Thursday, April 7, he writes, "This ill-advised contract (the request for reallocating $80,500 in the Superintendent's annuities/deferred comp to his base salary his last year) was first brought to the floor for approval by President Terri Harmon who stated there would be NO changes to the contract. The contract was not given to board members to review ahead of time."
    Isn't one of the BOE's purposes to examine, evaluate, and approve a Superintendent's contract? It appears that our current BOE (with the exception of Baird and another) is merely a "rubber stamp" that blindly follows without questioning.
    We, the taxpayers, support LSR7 with our monies, including providing monies for all salaries, the Superintendent notwithstanding! Yes, the public has a right to know!
    I'm awaiting your response (without SPIN).
    Jean Davis

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