March 16, 2019

Mallory Herrmann

Parents and teachers are still trying to make their voices heard in the ongoing conversation about equity in the Lee’s Summit school district. At the board of education’s Mar. 14 meeting, 20 people spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting – primarily about achievement gaps, racial bias and the need for professional development training.

Parents shared the obstacles, discrimination or bias their kids face in the classroom. A fifth grader who decided not to participate in a “colonial days” event because he wasn’t comfortable with participating in events like bobbing for apples and making candles, knowing that if he’d been alive at that time he likely would have been enslaved. A fourth-grade choir that sang, “jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton,” (a folk song that glorifies slavery) during a school concert. A third-grader with brown hair who was told to move to the end of the line when the class was asked to line up according to hair color because she is black.

Some teachers said that while they see the need for diversity, equity or implicit bias training, they feel that their administration hasn’t stood up for them or has implied that they are racist. Citing the media perception of an increasingly divided district, speakers called on the district to better manage the impression.

Media perceptions

That media perception was also the source of consideration for a third-party communication audit by Patron Insight, Inc. Rick Nobles, president at Patron Insight, said that they have worked with the district for nearly 20 years. He said that through an extensive review of approximately 18 months of district communications to assess gaps between what the district intends to communicate and what patrons are hearing, the perception of the district is primarily positive. But there is still a significant segment of patrons who “just aren’t buying it.” Citing trust issues from the prior administration, the ongoing equity and boundary conversations and an understaffed and overworked communications department, Noble said that trust has broken down and revealed gaps in communication.

“It’s unfortunate that you’re no longer seen as that leading edge, future thinking district,” Noble said. “I don’t think that’s accurate.”

In order to shift the communications strategy to a proactive, not reactive, practice, Patron Insights recommends focusing on equity and trust, continuing to focus on key concepts like “future ready,” “well-being,” and “innovations,” and expanding the department. Noting that most districts of comparable size have at least two to three communications personnel – but often more than five – Noble stressed that Lee’s Summit should have more than one person on their communications team.

He said that Kelly Wachel, executive director of public relations, is doing a phenomenal job but that there’s only so much she can do on her own – and that she’s limited in her ability to be strategic about the district’s communication when she has to spend so much time putting out fires.

“It takes time to turn the Titanic,” Noble said.

Personnel requests

The board voted unanimously to add new non-allocated positions district-wide, totaling $515,516 in costs to the district, with $181,856 of that amount coming from reimbursed or reallocated funds. The positions include a line item of $120,000 for communications personnel. Wachel clarified that it will not fund one position, but two: an assistant director position and a support person. She said that people have suggested those funds be used for teaching or para staff instead but asked that they not think of it as an “either/or” situation. The sentiment was echoed by board members later in the meeting. Ryan Murdock, board member, noted that some members of the public have complained about there not being enough communication, but then have subsequently complained about the proposed expense for more staff.

The board also approved the 2019–2020 compensation and benefit package for teachers, including a 3.4 percent increase in base pay. The district will now have a starting salary for teachers above the $40,000 mark, which Carpenter says is a first for metro school districts.

Twice as hard

Carpenter closed the nearly four-hour meeting by sharing the pain he and his wife felt hearing about the elementary school choir concert. They asked themselves how someone could think it was okay to choose such a song for the kids to sing – not with anger or an accusation, but with hurt. He stressed the importance of having these conversations about equity and cultural sensitivity so that these things don’t keep happening.

Carpenter referenced recent comments he’s heard during workshops and forums that minorities feel seen but not heard in the community. He said that as a person of color, he finds that he sometimes has to work twice as hard to get half as much.

“If I feel that way as superintendent, I’m sure that others are feeling that way too,” he said.

An earlier version of this story stated that the board approved $2.2 million in non-allocated positions district-wide, which is inaccurate. The initial requests received by central office totaled $2.2 million; district staff recommended approval of $515,516. The Tribune regrets the error.



  • Dave Minshall

    March 20, 2019 - 2:06 pm

    We need to bring minorities up not bring kids down to their level. Same old attitudes on both sides. EVERY ONE has to work hard to get where they want to be. A superintendent that makes 6 figures and benefits that complains about anything. Unbelievable. Some people just can’t be happy with where they’re at in life. Maybe some people of color could step up and run for the Board instead of complaining.

  • Lisa Roth

    March 24, 2019 - 8:47 am

    If you think our district communications department is overworked and understaffed….please spend a week in a SPED classroom anywhere in the district. Our teachers cannot use their “plan” time because our para support has been cut by 50%. I don’t agree that our district is the Titanic…its just that more than the tip of the iceberg has been exposed.

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