By Linda Ahern
Tribune Publisher

When the new superintendent of the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District faced questions over his hiring, his response came in the form of a public question and answer meeting held at Lee’s Summit West High School.

In that meeting, Dr. Dennis Carpenter addressed the pool of questions submitted by the parents and community members in the audience. The district’s new leader took the hard questions, and he answered them in his straight-shooter style, for which school board members praised him.

Dr. Carpenter told the people who packed auditorium that his first order of business was to restore trust in the community and in the school district. For this, Dr. Carpenter deserves our patience and our praise.

Parents of children in the LSR7 district and the community at large have a vested interest in the new leader of the school district. Given what the community has been through in recent memory, it would seem most prudent for the board to be as transparent as possible in the hiring process.

It is a little troubling that the school board itself did not seem too committed to that restoration of trust in the search for a new superintendent. Meetings with potential superintendent candidates were held in the Loch Lloyd subdivision located in Kansas City. These meetings were advertised closed meetings, not readily open to the public. Loch Lloyd is a gated community. Calls to staff members and home owner’s association at Loch Lloyd left it clear members of the press or the general public would not be allowed to enter. Upon disclosure that I was a member of the press I questioned whether a list had been left at the front gate for those who would be allowed to enter in order to attend the meeting. Staff members told us that anyone with the school district would be allowed in.

However, when pressed for whether a member of the press would be allowed to take photographs in the open meeting, the board secretary referred to the board attorney, Joseph Hatley, Partner at Spencer Fane, LLP.

The Tribune staff reached out to the school board for clarity on the openness of the negotiations. In an email, school board attorney Joseph Hatley said that our questions were difficult to answer.

“It is honestly difficult to answer your question because it poses a hypothetical situation that depends a lot on the layout of the Loch Lloyd clubhouse and parking lot. Obviously, though, the school district does not control that property.

“The Sunshine Law does allow a school district to close both records and meetings relating to ‘applicants for employment.’ (RSMo. § 610.021(13)). Additionally, candidates for the Superintendent position were assured, based on this part of the Sunshine Law, that their applications and interviews would be handled confidentially.”

Mr. Hatley went on to say that employment both in the private sector and in the public realm is handled confidentially because the revelation of a job search may affect their current employment.

“For this reason, maintaining confidentiality can improve the pool of applicants, since strong candidates know that if unsuccessful, they can return to their current district without affecting their relationship with their board or their immediate supervisors,” Hatley said in part.

Last March, Dr. Carpenter was a finalist for superintendent in the Hazelwood School District in St. Louis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published his photograph and qualifications along with the other two candidates for the job. Public meetings were held while the candidates were questioned by the community. In the end, the board met in closed session to make their final decision, but the entire process was open to the public up until the last step.

It is too bad that the residents of Lee’s Summit were not allowed the same privilege.

But the example in Hazelwood illustrates the fact that this can be done. A question directed at the board on the night of the public meeting asked why the board would choose a candidate who had any sort of controversy surrounding them, whether by their own doing or not, after what the school district had just been through with the last superintendent. It is puzzling why the board would choose to conduct these proceedings in private given the fact that other districts have successfully included public input, at least to some degree.

School board members, can we expect you to follow the example of our new superintendent’s top priority? Will trust and transparency be restored to the R-7 school district?

And to future school board members following the April election, please take the note: The citizens of Lee’s Summit deserve and expect transparency. It is up to the members of the community to hold the school board to higher expectations and to keep them honest and transparent.

The Missouri State Statute is as follows:

(RSMo. § 610.021(13)) Individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings or records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment, except that this exemption shall not apply to the names, positions, salaries and lengths of service of officers and employees of public agencies once they are employed as such, and the names of private sources donating or contributing money to the salary of a chancellor or president at all public colleges and universities in the state of Missouri and the amount of money contributed by the source.