Letter to the Editor From Randall W. Cain
I wish to say a few words re the hiring of Dr. Carpenter as the R-7 Superintendent. By way of background, I have four years of public school teaching, have been a practicing attorney in Lee’s Summit for 31 years, and was President of the Eastern Jackson County Bar Association in 2013-14. This letter should not necessarily be construed as opposition to Dr. Carpenter. A lot of fine, highly dedicated people, working for no pay whatsoever, spent a great deal of time and energy in his selection. If they still believe him to be a good choice even in light of all the new information that has come out since his hiring, then I do not believe that I am in a position to criticize that choice. However, at the public forum last Wednesday at LSWest, the Board put out so much misinformation I cannot remain silent.
The very first question of the evening was a paraphrasing of the main question; why is the Board sticking with Dr. Carpenter even after learning about the discrimination lawsuits against Hickman Mills during his tenure? Instead of answering that question themselves, the Board immediately threw the microphone to the district’s attorney….and at that point we were flung headlong into the world of disinformation, political spin, and “alternate facts.” The importance of the discrimination lawsuits was summarily dismissed by the attorney, who made claims to the effect that many Missouri school districts faced such cases because Missouri is a particularly easy place to file such cases, that anybody with $200.00 and a computer could file such a lawsuit, etc. I’m paraphrasing, but you can see all these comments verbatim on YouTube. Board President Bob White echoed this theme afterward, stating that such cases are “very easy” to file.
Well now. Let’s first take Mr. White’s comment. The clear implication by Mr. White, a layperson, is that discrimination lawsuits are somehow easier to file than others. That is absolutely untrue, and has never been true. One of the founding principles of our democracy is that any ordinary citizen can file a petition seeking redress or compensation from the government, from corporations, or from anyone else for alleged injustices or wrongs. There is no gatekeeper that prevents the filing of a petition, of any kind, nor should there be. If the complaint is without merit, it is the responsibility of the defendant to bring that to the attention of the judge and ask that it be dismissed. So, it’s “easy” to file any kind of lawsuit, and discrimination cases are no different in that regard whatsoever. Winning is a different matter altogether. Unfortunately, statements and implications were also made in support the notion that such cases are “easy” to win as well as file.
That flies in the face of the facts. A compilation of jury verdicts in the Kansas City Metropolitan area for last year shows that the person bringing the case (called the plaintiff) won only 5 of the 13 cases that went to trial. That’s 38%. The year before was worse, with the plaintiff winning only 4 of 13 trials (31%) The year before was worse still, with the plaintiff winning a measly twice out of 10 trials (20%). A flood of cases? Easy victories? Far from it. At no time has it been “easy” to win such a case, either in Kansas City or statewide. As Yogi used to say, you can look it up. No doubt the Missouri legislature will soon do everything possible to help their well-heeled supporters and stack the deck even higher in their favor. So was the Board’s attorney just misinformed? Probably not. He’s a partner in a fine downtown Kansas City firm, but one whose clients consist primarily of large corporations, insurance companies, and various Boards. Now what do you think he’s going to say? His statements were misleading at best and offensive at worst, especially in a public forum filled with constituents that needed hard facts, not political spin right out of the play book of one of the two major parties.
Besides….something that’s somehow gotten lost in all the reporting of “the lawsuits” is the fact that one of them is not just one of several pending lawsuits. One of them has already gone to trial….and in that case, decided just last November in Jackson County, Hickman Mills and Dr. Carpenter lost big. I want to say a few words to describe this process. The case of Dr. William Scully vs. Hickman Mills was filed clear back in 2013. Experienced attorneys for both sides went through thousands of documents, spent hundreds of hours in depositions and other preparations, and spent years battling each other before the case finally came to trial. When it did, the attorneys spent hours and hours questioning potential jurors who were ordinary people plucked out of the community at random, whittling them down from several dozen to the final jury of 12. That jury, receiving $6.00 a day (a shamefully low figure) spent days sifting through the evidence, listening to witnesses testify and be cross-examined, and then to final arguments from the attorneys for each side. It’s an amazing process, one that often strikes awe in those who watch it for the first time, or even for the hundredth time. The right to a jury trial was believed so important by the Founders it is enshrined in the 7th Amendment to the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson once described a judge and jury as the greatest single engine for the discovery of truth ever devised by the minds of men.
That particular jury took only two hours to find that Dr. Scully had suffered from unlawful discrimination at the hands of the Defendant, and awarded him $297,000.0 But they weren’t done there. They also agreed that the actions of the Defendant were outrageous because of complete indifference to the rights of Dr. Scully, so much so that an additional award of punitive damages (which are rarely awarded in Missouri) was appropriate in order to punish the defendant for its willful misconduct, and to deter others from similar conduct in the future. They then tacked on another $450,000.00 in damages. The verdict was accepted by the judge, and entered as a Trial Order. Motions are pending to add additional fees and expenses to the judgement, and it will probably then be appealed. But the trial is over…the verdict is in. Of course that’s just one case. The verdict could be wrong, it could be right. But to disparage and dismiss the hard work of that group of devoted Jackson County citizens in such a cavalier fashion is to attack the very foundations of our democracy.
One final piece of disinformation must be corrected. Much was made of the fact that Dr. Carpenter was not a named defendant in either the Scully case nor in any of the others that are pending. This is true, but misleading. Corporations and Boards can only act through their agents, and as Superintendent Dr. Carpenter was the CEO, the administrating agent, of the Board’s wishes. And, according to the lead attorney representing Dr. Scully, he was much more than that. Bear in mind that the plaintiff’s attorney in such a case cares not who the bad actor was…the judgement is against the Board, not an individual. Still, the attorney was quoted as follows in Missouri Lawyers Weekly:
“Dr. Carpenter was given a blank slate (by the school board) to hire a new team of administrators and secondary principals as he preferred. And the results showed that a dramatically younger group of people were hired, passing over more qualified older candidates.”
Despite all this, I support the Board’s decision to hire Dr. Carpenter because I think it is inappropriate if not downright foolish to second-guess and criticize a decision made after untold hours of hard work by fine public servants, working without pay, especially when I wasn’t even in part of the process. I only wish the efforts of this Jackson County jury had received the same degree of deference, respect and courtesy from the R-7 Board.
Randall W. Cain