From Jeff Grisamore, Former State Representative & Formerly Endorsed Candidate of the Missouri NEA
January 24, 2019
Consideration of a Contract Extension for Dr. Dennis Carpenter, Superintendent of LSR7
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am a proud father of 10 children−including three Officers in the United States Army−nine of whom have attended Lee’s Summit LSR7 schools since 2003 from Kindergarten through 12th grade. I also served as a former state legislator for eight years, representing Lee’s Summit and Greenwood. During that period, as a four-time candidate for State Representative, I repeatedly received the endorsements of the Missouri NEA, Missouri State Teachers Association, as well as groups representing Missouri Principles and Administrators.
Given the voices in our community that have sounded off publicly on the current controversies surrounding your hiring of Dr. Dennis Carpenter and consideration of the extension of his contract, I believe I have earned the right to offer some perspectives and observations from my unique experiences over the last 16 years of interaction with the Lee’s Summit LSR7 School District (LSR7).
My firstborn graduated from LSWHS in 2007 and my youngest will graduate in 2027. I have a vested interest and passionately want to see our schools and community continue to excel. As the former superintendent, Dr. David McGehee, and some present and former school board members would attest to, I was a passionate advocate for and defender of LSR7 schools during my tenure in the Missouri House of Representatives, which was term limited in 2015.
In reference to the current situation involving Dr. Carpenter, I attended the school board meeting in 2017 during which he was introduced as the next Superintendent of LSR7 schools. While I was somewhat surprised that you chose a superintendent from the neighboring school district of Hickman Mills after a state and national search, I was confident in your selection process and decision.
Phyllis Balagna, the LSR7 Board President, told me how impressive he was in the interview process and stood out. I appreciated her affirmation of Dr. Carpenter during the first equity forum last fall in which she stated, “he’s our guy.” I so deeply appreciate the passion and dedication each of you show to your voluntary roles as school board directors. Likewise, I have volunteered my time in recent months to engage in this process.
More importantly, I have found Dr. Carpenter to be an impressive hire as superintendent. He appears to be a fine Christian man of integrity that would not succumb to some of the issues and controversies that our school District experienced under former leadership, which brought much negative press to our community.
Because of my concern with the previous high profile crisis of leadership we experienced in our school district and the critical need for success in the succession through your hiring of Dr. Carpenter, I decided to become more engaged after having termed out of office four years ago.
In recent months, I have attended all three public forums addressing the issues involving equity. With professional research as a part of my background, I have also conducted Adelphi research on the subject matter related to equity and achievement gaps. I have also conducted some focus group interviews with my children who graduated from LSR7 schools and those still attending, as well as acquiring secondary input from some of their friends. That has included travel in state and to other states to interview my grown children in person.
Most importantly, since last November, I have engaged in multiple discussions in person and on the phone with Dr. Carpenter. I have found him to be highly engaged, very competent and extremely passionate and dedicated in his role as the Superintendent for the LSR7 School District.
At the same time, I had concerns last fall after reading of the controversy surrounding the consideration of hiring Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Education Group (PEG). I have heard loud and clear the objections from black families regarding the withdrawal from the proposal to bring Glenn in for facilitation.
As Dr. Carpenter pointed out, Singleton’s book, Courageous Conversations About Race, was a recommended book for members of Missouri BOEs to read by the Missouri School Boards Association last year. On the other side of that debate are parents in LSR7 who would consider Singleton’s emphasis on white privilege, as cited in the LSNEA letter, as a cause for concern.
Many of the parents of the approximately 75% of white students in LSR7 would push back at being stereotyped as racist and embodying white privilege and being characterized as perpetrators of institutional or systemic racism or subjected to messaging that they might perceive as race baiting or shaming.
Conversely, parents of black students in LSR7 are deeply concerned that their children experience a 17% to 35% achievement gap. My own children cited to me multiple instances of racism they observed during their cumulative years attending LSR7 schools. I am confident that you would all agree that the concerns of parents of black students are valid and must be considered and strategically and tactically addressed.
Dr. Carpenter’s example cited at the first education forum about differences at two parent teacher conferences in LSR7−one for a white student and the other for a black student−is an excellent point. In one instance, a teacher spent time and detail helping a white parent and her child, coaching them on how to get the student’s grade from a B to an A. When the black student’s parent came in with the same goal of helping their child get from a B to an A, the teacher simply said, “your child is doing fine.” The difference in those approaches and responses with a white parent, versus a black parent, is troubling and is reflective that we can do better for all students.
For us who are white in LSR7 to assume that some degrees of overt and covert or latent racism no longer exist in Lee’s Summit and institutional or systemic racism and unconscious biases about race no longer remain in varying degrees would be intellectually dishonest.
I am a former Republican office holder who embraced compassionate conservatism and resisted extreme liberal ideology that emphasizes political correctness. I valued statesmanship over partisanship and worked with both sides of the aisle in championing legislation and state funding for vulnerable persons, especially at-risk women and children, vulnerable seniors and persons with physical, developmental and mental health disabilities, as well as the homeless and victims of human trafficking−groups I still serve today.
I need more than one hand to count the number of times over the last 16 years I have heard older persons in Lee’s Summit call blacks the n-word. By and large, the younger generation does not reflect that level of overt racism. Unless it is engrained in them, they reject it outright. It is unfortunate that in this current situation surrounding Dr. Carpenter some have called him by the n-word on social media and a POS.
I am sure all of you would agree that−as other school districts in the region, state and nationally have experienced−we can do better in closing achievement gaps for all minority, marginalized and vulnerable students and excel in equity, diversity and inclusion.
All of you who are members of the LSR7 BOE were, no doubt, aware of Dr. Carpenter’s emphasis on equity among all the other functions he has fulfilled in his roles as a superintendent of schools in Missouri and elsewhere. Claims by anyone that all he has done as a superintendent is emphasize equity initiatives is grossly unfair and disregards his multi-faceted roles as a superintendent here and elsewhere.
While it is clear that the possible course of action with Glenn Singleton and PEG was withdrawn last year, I was deeply concerned about the Lee’s Summit NEA letter of January 16, 2019 to all of you. At that time, I felt sure that letter was not authorized or sanctioned by the Missouri NEA that has repeatedly endorsed my candidacies in the past.
I am very encouraged with the follow-up letter on January 22nd from the LSNEA interim President, who “apologized” for misstatements in the letter, including the statement that she was “writing on behalf of LSNEA members” after receiving complaints of “misrepresentation.” Her acknowledgment of statement she made in error and corrections she will make in a follow-up letter to Dr. Carpenter and the LSR7 BOE are commendable. I greatly appreciate LSNEA Officers who serve in addition to their demanding roles as teachers.
It should also be noted that according to latest available and publicly accessible data, the LSNEA has about 80 members who have dues withheld from their paychecks out of a total certified staff in LSR7 of about 1400. About 477 LSR7 teachers, as members of the MSTA, have payroll withholding for teachers union dues.
My concern has escalated in recent days as other community voices have expressed opposition to your possible extension of Dr. Carpenter’s contract. I was encouraged to see the statement issued by all of you last Thursday announcing you had entered into negotiations with Dr. Carpenter for an extension of his contract.
In my 40 plus years of professional life in the corporate, non-profit, faith-based and governmental sectors, I don’t know if I have ever witnessed a more egregious rush to judgment in calling for all of you to not renew Dr. Carpenter’s contract. You only selected Dr. Carpenter just over a year-and-a-half ago and he has only been serving as the LSR7 Superintendent since July 1 of 2017, less than 19 months. The rush by a few in our community to seek to influence all of you to force his ouster looks like a good old fashioned lynch mob with the modern trappings of social media. To have afforded the previous superintendent more than 10 years under contracts and seek removal of our first black superintendent in less than two years would be terrible optics for our community.
What is going on through social media and among establishment insiders in Lee’s Summit and their surrogates appears to be a coordinated smear campaign to unfairly and falsely attack and discredit Dr. Carpenter and seek to pressure him to resign. One commentator on Facebook rightly called the publishing on social media of a picture of Dr. Carpenter with his fraternity brothers a “Red Herring.” To cite that as a basis to call for his termination is laughable and only further reflects the coordinated effort and smear campaign by those seeking his ouster, which would appear to be motivated, in part, by racism.
KCTV 5 interviewed a former political supporter of mine who I would consider a friend. He cited a picture on Facebook of Dr. Carpenter with his fraternity brothers. Yet the very same vulgar hand sign my friend faulted Dr. Carpenter for with his fraternity brothers at a tailgate is the same symbol in which my friend is seen with in another picture on Facebook. As Jesus said, “he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”
If you were to become known as a BOE and we as a community that hired our first black school superintendent and allowed him to be ran out of town in less than two years, the long-term damage and unintended consequences to our area as a destination community in the metro Kansas City could be devastating in long-term impact.
One leader who has appeared in opposition to Dr. Carpenter correctly stated that our schools are an asset that needs to be protected. It could also be argued that if we pursue a radically extreme approach to diversity and equity initiatives that is characterized by a liberal emphasis on white privilege, we could alienate existing residents within LSR7 and prospective families who may consider moving here.
However, I would argue that the much greater threat to the familial and economic strengths of our community would be to prematurely run our first black superintendent out of town in less than two years. This would alienate families in LSR7 and create a redline that would cause multitudes of families to avoid Lee’s Summit as a destination community because of perceived racism. They might choose other communities with good schools that are perceived as more inclusive and progressive in their approaches to equity and diversity.
Through my extensive discussions with Dr. Carpenter over the last few months, I have found him to be very aware of the need to pursue equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives for all minority, marginalized and vulnerable student groups. This includes−but is not limited to−black students. It would also include other minority races and students of LGBTQ orientation, as well as those experiencing trauma, mental health issues and vulnerability to suicide, etc.
Dr. Carpenter and I have discussed at length the need to pursue comprehensive research nationwide of all schools of thought on equity, not just Glenn Singleton’s PEG approach, which is countered with differing perspectives by other education consultants of color. I have suggested that after an exhaustive study nationwide of equity and diversity initiatives, LSR7 contextualize and customize a multi-faceted approach with best practice models that are reflective of and respective of all constituency groups within our suburban school district. That could become a national model and over the coming years and decades reflective of LSR7’s track record of outstanding achievement and excellence.
I would propose that such innovative initiatives include an exhaustive listening tour among students, teachers, administrators, parents, business, civic and faith leaders, property owners associations etc. to listen to their concerns and document them to be included in eventual strategic and tactical plans addressing broad-based and comprehensive equity and diversity initiatives. To achieve longitudinal results that are reflected through improvements in achievement gaps for all target groups−as other model school districts have experienced−this would obviously be a multi-year initiative.
One prominent community leader, for whom I have had the utmost respect and appreciation and still do, told me that there is an impression among some business and civic leaders and beyond that Dr. Carpenter took on too much too soon and he would go far if he would take responsibility for that and that he has burned too many bridges for his tenure to be sustainable. His point is fairly taken because he spoke it while affirming Dr. Carpenter with hope he would take responsibility and apologize.
Yet, I would also have to question if a white superintendent who initially pursued the same three big ticket items of boundary changes, innovation tracking and equity initiatives would have met the same resistance or instead be called a hard-working and innovative leader doing good for this school district?
For those who would deny that some degree of race might play a factor in response to Dr. Carpenter and opposition to extension of his contract, I most respectfully and sincerely hope they will re-consider their position. For those who continue to call him by the n-word and a POS, those sentiments speak for themselves and have no credibility in this community conversation.
As I am sure you would all agree, I believe Dr. Carpenter has earned the right to extension of his contract with reasonable expectations and accountabilities. It is noted that your decision to approve boundary changes was unanimous. The innovation tracking appears to be an ongoing work in progress with a longitudinal trajectory. That leaves the equity initiatives as the apparent single point of controversy and basis upon which the LSNEA letter and others have called upon all of you to not extend Dr. Carpenter’s contract.
As a father of a special needs child who died and having served as an advocate in the state legislature for students with special needs, I strongly agree with the LSNEA letter that more needs to be done in LSR7 to also address that student population and their teachers and paras. More staffing in those areas is possible with our growing tax-base and the federal IDEA appropriations through the State.
Having also served for 7 years as the Chairman of the Children’s Services Commission for the State of Missouri, I also agree with the need for more comprehensive approaches to address the needs of all marginalized and vulnerable student populations, especially those affected by abuse, neglect, familial dysfunctions, crises and mental health issues.
Notwithstanding some of the legitimate points in the LSNEA letter, I believe the letter went off the rails, so to speak, and became misguided when it questioned your search and selection process that led to the hiring of Dr. Carpenter. I am confident that the vast majority of patrons of the LSR7 District are confident in your processes as a Board of Education. I hope the forthcoming letter from the LSNEA will address that.
I also question the LSNEA letter’s criticism of the creation of the Assistant Superintendent for “Equity and Student Services.” If we agree that “more can and should be done to strategically and tactically address “equity and training on how to best meet the diverse needs of our changing student population,” as the LSNEA letter states, what better way to do that than to dedicate paid staff to facilitate such initiatives?
If we and the LSNEA can agree that equity training to meet the diverse needs of racial minority, special needs and LGBTQ students and those affected by childhood trauma, familial crisis and dysfunctions and mental health issues is needed, how will we accomplish that without dedicated financial resources?
Citations have been made about what has been accomplished in the Blue Valley School District to the west and the Park Ridge school district to our east over the last decade and there are many other model school districts in the nation from which LSR7 can learn and excel in these areas.
In closing, I passionately encourage all of you as members of the LSR7 BOE to stand your ground in pursuing the extension of Dr. Carpenter’s contract. For all the challenges and negative press that surrounded our previous superintendent, he went through multiple contract renewals and extensions within his tenure of approximately a decade. The limited number of voices among establishment insiders and those that are seeking to stir up negative press coverage are not reflective of the vast majority of patrons in the 46,249 households within the catchment area of the LSR7 school district.
Such persons, who are clearly speaking and acting for a minority of our population in Lee’s Summit, can sometimes have an over-inflated view of their self-importance and influence. As a former public official, I have sometimes been guilty of that myself. I believe we all need to, as the Bible says, “seek peace and pursue it” and “make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” and “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly…” In the current situation, we face a choice between legacy and infamy. My prayers will be with your decisions and I have full confidence in your deliberations and process as you consider extension of Dr. Carpenter’s contract.
It would also appear that a solid majority of teachers in LSR7, by a more than two-to-one majority, support Dr. Carpenter and I think that number will go up as more teachers become informed of the full picture on these issues and what is really going on. Thank you very much for your consideration of this letter and for your public service as Directors of the Lee’s Summit LSR7 Board of Education. As a fellow public servant, I deeply appreciate your dedication and sacrifice for the students, faculty, administration and parents in our school district.
With you for Lee’s Summit LSR7 schools,
Former State Representative
District 34−Lee’s Summit/Greenwood
Consultant, dba The Grisamore Group