Apr. 11, 2019

OPINION By Jeff Grisamore

Since January 25th, when a letter (see below) I wrote to the Lee’s Summit R-7 Board of Education was published in the Lee’s Summit Tribune, community leaders for teachers, parents and activists’ groups have asked me for an updated public statement. I wanted to wait until after the elections for the Board of Education (BOE) were completed and a decision had been made by the BOE of the Lee’s Summit R-7 (LSR7) school district on Dr. Carpenter’s contract extension. lstribune.net/index.php/2019/01/25/letter-to-directors-of-the-lees-summit-lsr7-board-of-education/  

Last week’s decisive election wins by Judy Hedrick and Mike Allen to the Lee’s Summit Board of Education (BOE) is a positive development. Mike has been a champion for children with disabilities and their families. I know he will keep their interests at the forefront of equity discussions. Judy is a former teacher and school district administrator who will bring much expertise to the BOE. I also want to commend LSR7 BOE President, Phyllis Balagna and former Board President, Bob White, for their years of tireless service as they step down this Thursday night, April 11th.

Since September, I have been voluntarily conducting research and interacting with the BOE toward providing observations and recommendations for them as they lead our LSR7 school district. As a parent that has had 9 of my 10 children attend LSR7 schools since 2003, with 8 more years until my youngest graduates, I deeply appreciate the work of the BOE in leading our outstanding LSR7 school district.

A very clear message to all teachers in LSR7

In my opinion, the best news for LSR7 in the last 11 weeks came on February 8th. On that day the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced LSR7 received a 99.3% Annual Percentage Report (APR), LSR7’s highest score in six years. That accomplishment is a testament to our teachers.

On that score, I want to share a very clear message to all teachers in LSR7. I was very grieved to hear from an officer of the Lee’s Summit National Education Association (LSNEA) last month that, based on my published letter of January 25th, some teachers felt undermined by my previous comments. That was never my intention.

When I wrote the BOE in January, challenging some content of a letter from an officer of the LSNEA, I also tried to be balanced, commending them for their service and expressing my appreciation for our outstanding teachers in LSR7. I was glad the second NEA letter stated an apology for some misrepresentations in the first LSNEA letter.

In that same spirit, I want to offer this second letter of mine to correct an unintended misrepresentation in my first letter of January 25th. Specifically, I want to publicly apologize that my citation in that letter contained an incomplete and unintentionally misleading reference to LSNEA membership.

My previous letter cited about 80 members who have their association dues withheld from payroll. After that letter was published, an LSNEA officer informed me that their association has more than 250 members, most of whom pay their dues apart from payroll deduction. My error was in no way intended to discredit the LSNEA or teachers.

During the eight years (2007-2015) I represented more than 25,000 households in Lee’s Summit, Greenwood and eastern Jackson county in the Missouri House of Representatives, I consistently fought for LSR7 schools. I was honored to receive repeated endorsements from the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) and Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA). Contrary to some speculation, I never intend to run for public office again.

For the 16 years I have lived in Lee’s Summit–and long before that–our school district has been known as the best on the Missouri side of greater Kansas City. It has been the primary driver of our community growth. Superintendents have come and gone, but the one constant has been our teachers. They are who make LSR7 the school district everyone else wants to be and drives Lee’s Summit as a destination community. As I’m sure most of us in the more than 46,000 patron households in LSR7 would agree, our outstanding schools are because of our excellent teachers.

I am profoundly saddened that the events of the last 7 months and more have left many of our teachers in LSR7 feeling demoralized and falsely mischaracterized as racist and inept. Nothing could be further from the truth. I hope that all parents with students in LSR7 will join me through the end of this school year in expressing our community-wide appreciation to our outstanding teachers in LSR7, whether trough emails or notes of encouragement.

During the February 21st meeting of the BOE, Rick Nobles of Patron Insight was presenting a communication audit of LSR7. He said something profoundly affirming of our teachers and administrators at that time. Recounting that he is often asked what the best school district in Missouri is, he said he always tells inquirers that of the nearly 500 school districts in Missouri, LSR7 is the best. That’s quite a statement from an expert that has worked with countless school districts for decades. Noble’s assessment and the 99.3% APR are both testaments to our outstanding teachers in LSR7.

Regarding Dr. Carpenter, the LSR7 Equity Plan & Race Relations in Lee’s Summit

Beyond commending our teachers, those who have asked me for an updated public statement have wanted me to publicly comment on Dr. Carpenter’s contract extension and the equity plan. Although I am just one parent and voice in LSR7, I will offer some public observations–as requested–and recommendations. I have already provided those to the BOE and Dr. Carpenter privately.

Now that the BOE has extended Dr. Carpenter’s original 3-year contract for another year through June of 2021, we have an opportunity to change the narrative and approach as a community. Like Mayor Baird wrote, “our community has a long history of coming together to talk about our schools.” He also noted the “hundreds of productive and civil face-to-face meetings” talking “about equity, equality, the achievement gap, race relations and poverty.” He accurately described the many positive developments over the last year “outside of the divisive language on social media.”

It was divisive language on social media that compelled me to write the BOE on January 25th. I had originally planned to write the BOE privately. When the offer was made for the letter to be published, I reluctantly agreed. However, a print deadline within hours forced me to rush a final draft, which I would have revised with more time.

That letter was an attempt to bring more balance to the community conversation, having heard from many African-Americans and whites in Lee’s Summit. It was also driven by a desire to defend Dr. Carpenter from what appeared to be negative and coordinated attacks on social media by a proportionately few in our community.

The isolated racial and profane name calling back then by a few directed at Dr. Carpenter and a photo posted on social media that elicited TV coverage seemed unfair and unbecoming of our community. Even some of his most ardent opponents have agreed with that assessment. I realize that not everyone agrees, and I respect other positions.

What happened in January reminded me of the U.S. Senate hearings in 1991 for the nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. At that time, Justice Thomas angrily and metaphorically called those proceedings a “high tech lynching.” My letter hyperbolized the same metaphor, likening what was being done to Dr. Carpenter at the time as metaphorically reminiscent of a “lynch mob with the modern trappings of social media.”

Had I known the Kansas City Star would use that metaphor in the title of an article on March 3rd, which I viewed as unfair, misrepresentative of our community and unbalanced, I would have never allowed that letter to the BOE to be published. Contrary to the Kansas City Star article that misrepresented our great community, Lee’s Summit is not fractured over equality in education. kansascity.com/news/local/article225021835.html

Lee’s Summit and our schools have been pursuing equity and diversity initiative for years before Dr. Carpenter came to LSR7. Equity initiatives have accelerated under his watch. The divisions and controversies have not been over equity itself as much as the approach.

Most support equity, just a different approach

Most teachers in LSR7 want equity and diversity training to become better teachers. Like me, they just disagree on some of approaches that have been proposed and shared in public forums. I think incoming BOE member, Dr. Judy Hedrick, said it best at a BOE candidate forum on February 13th, hosted by the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce. 

In answer to a question from an audience member who wrote about the disenfranchisement felt by some African-Americans, she said teachers to whom she has spoken have said, “If I’m doing something where my student feels that way, I want to know it and I want to be able to do something about that.”

The reason I first met with Dr. Carpenter on November 5th was because of my concerns about approaches to equity. I also wanted to be supportive of the BOE decision to hire him. Like some of his critics have said, most in Lee’s Summit have wanted to see him succeed as our first black superintendent of LSR7.

Contrary to a widely circulated list of nine accusations that have been making the rounds on and off social media since January. Dr. Carpenter did not “recruit” me to “write the BOE,” as one of those false accusations stated. When I realized that accusation was false, I decided to investigate the eight other accusations and found all of them to be wholly or partly false as well. The problem is they were purported to be “reliable” and provided from the “inside” by “former teachers.”

From our first meeting and since, I have encouraged Dr. Carpenter to pursue alternative approaches on equity. I have and continue to propose a cooperative, respectful and collaborative approach. I have also suggested a comprehensive literature review and research study in national scope. In my opinion, such a study should consider all sides and approaches on equity issues, schools of thought and best practice models. I believe there is a lot of talent, volunteer and professional equity in our community among blacks, whites and those of other races.

The equity plan can be done right or wrong

If the equity plan is done right, a community-based approach could mobilize and synthesize a customized equity plan for our schools and community. Such a plan could and should be respectful of all reasonable opinions and reflective of all demographics and stakeholder groups in our community.

I believe we can see an innovative plan come together that engenders great engagement in our community. If done right, it can unleash a massive multi-cultural response of human capital, volunteerism and expertise. One example is the mentoring program Dr. Carpenter led in the launch of last year. An expanded version of that mentoring program, along with exponentially increased tutoring, could have a huge impact on reducing achievement gaps.

If the equity plan is done wrong, the same controversies and divisions evident could continue and even increase. However, I am very confident in our BOE that they will get this right in their decision-making and our community will respond in a big way, like our community always has.

There are scholarly, evidence and researched-based models and principles of approaching equity that have long-term historic precedent. Those approaches precede much of the socio-politically divisive, racially-charged and controversial ideas that have been promoted since the late 1980s and have contributed to the controversies in Lee’s Summit.

As a former researcher in social sciences and practitioner, having served at-risk, vulnerable and marginalized populations for decades, I see this through different filters. I began my college experience in 1980 toward my bachelor’s degree in interpersonal and group communications with certification in intercultural studies.

I continued my cultural studies overseas from 1982-1985, while working full-time in a foreign culture. From there I continued my work from the inner-cities of America to leading non-profit services to vulnerable, at-risk and marginalized populations in nearly 30 countries around the world.

The host culture in which I lived for three years was predominantly of African descent. We operated on scholarly and historically long-standing principles of cross-cultural communication. Those were rooted in evidence-based principles of intercultural engagement.

Working in teams, we practiced respectful, empathetic listening and unbiased observation and research. We also conducted ourselves through mutual respect, understanding, collaboration, cooperation and non-judgmental, tolerant approaches to intercultural interactions. That was contrasted by so much of the intolerant and divisive rhetoric that is evident today. From childhood and throughout life, I have counted many African-Americans as among my closest friends. I do not pretend to know the black experience and realized it has been different for some in the African-American community.

In all the places I have lived and worked ( seven states and overseas), I have never seen a community with better race relations than Lee’s Summit–from government down to the schools and neighborhood levels. That does not mean that some isolated incidents with racial overtones have not occurred. Any racial incidents experienced by students and parents of color in any community should be taken very seriously. We can listen, learn and do better as a community.

“Lee’s Summit is an exceptional community”

Bill Birmingham, a recent BOE candidate said, “Lee’s Summit is an exceptional community.” He said that as a man who is African-American with children attending LSR7 schools. I also appreciate that he has gone on the record as not supporting some of the equity approaches that have been considered in LSR7. Bill is an IT engineer who has voluntarily led mentoring for at-risk youth in Kansas City, helping close the achievement gap in their lives and increasing their opportunities for college and workforce readiness.

When whites or blacks feel unfairly labeled as racist, based on divisive and controversial ideology and approaches, that matters. To summarily dismiss or minimize the racial concerns of persons of any minority race in the LSR7 catchment area is disrespectful. They represent thousands of households in our community. To unfairly mischaracterize and misrepresent our entire community as racist is equally wrong.

In my view, any purported incidents of racism are the exception rather than the norm in our community. Some African-Americans in Lee’s Summit have told me they have not experienced racism in our community. They think some of the rancor over race has been overplayed. I have also heard from many more African-Americans who say race is an issue, like in any community. There are clearly some differences of opinion on race within the African-American and white communities in Lee’s Summit.

I think it matters when any African-Americans feel marginalized in any way. It also matters when whites feel unfairly labeled. During my 16 years in Lee’s Summit, it has been my observation that most members of opposite races have demonstrated a constant willingness to bend over backwards to serve, help and accommodate members of other races.

I also believe in empathetically listening to any such concerns and appropriate responses. The question for our community is how do we respond and create any equity program that is unbiased, balanced and respectful of all reasonable stakeholders? The answers need not be divisive and racially charged, but rather unifying and reconciling.

We can address these issues in civil ways for those willing to engage in a spirit of mutually respectful cooperation. As Mayor Baird has said, these issues are bigger than our schools and calls for continued community conversation on race and diversity. The following articles by Mayor Baird are worth a read. lstribune.net/index.php/2019/03/02/mayor-says-spirit-of-community-will-move-city-and-schools-forward/ lstribune.net/index.php/2019/01/26/mayor-bill-baird-calls-for-community-conversations-on-race-and-diversity/

What I have heard consistently over the last seven months from whites and blacks is they agree that issues of race are a two-way street. They also agree that any degree of concerns or discussions on the spectrum of race–from prejudice and discrimination to any inferences of implicit or explicit biases–should apply to members of all races in how they perceive and react to one another. Growth in intercultural competency is a worthy goal for any school district and community.

Racial issues are not a one-way street for which any prescriptive actions should be directed at any one race. No one should be shut down for even questioning a term or idea to gain better understanding or comment with a contrarian view. That kind of intolerance has been evident in both public forums and meetings of educators.

I believe that in striking the proper balance on issue of equity, we need to avoid both extremes. One extreme evident in hearing some black and white community leaders say that racism does not exist in Lee’s Summit. Given racial issues are a continuum from subtleties to extremes, that kind of dismissiveness that minimizes perceptions and experiences in much of the black community is not helpful for making progress on equity and race relations.

There is another extreme where what may be legitimate incidences of racism experienced by some African-Americans cause an overarching conclusion that such isolated events make an entire community racist. To label an entire race or community based on the anecdotal experience of a comparatively few also impedes progress on issues of equity and race. I believe this is not an either-or, but a both-and issue that demands mutual respect, understanding and collaborative cooperation.

When I have read strands of comments on social media during the last seven months, I have felt like white people and persons of color have sometimes been talking at and past each other and not with each other. At other times, I have read and heard of great exchanges between blacks and whites.

I think most people in LSR7 welcome growth and increased understanding in cultural competency. The controversy seems to have been about the messenger and message and what approaches to equity are taken in our schools. To be clear, I am not talking about Dr. Carpenter. Any messenger or message that stirs controversy and division is not the answer. I believe the answers are largely in our community, while also relying on outside resources that are not divisive.

We can pursue equity in ways that are respectful of all sides, reflective of the demographics in our community and involve all stakeholders in the process. A top down approach without extensive engagement at every level of our community–students, parents, teachers, administrators and all community stakeholder groups–will not work.

I am confident the BOE and our greater Lee’s Summit community will rise to this challenge and our traditions of excellence in our schools and community. I love the Bible verse that says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:7). That verse is prefaced by “love” being defined as “patient, kind” and that it “does not dishonor others” and it “keeps no record of wrongs.”

We now have the opportunity in Lee’s Summit and LSR7 for a reset, so to speak, but there is no easy button for these issues. They are complex and require uncomfortable conversations and collaboration in a spirit of unity and commitment for the good of students in LSR7 and our entire community. Although it will take years to fully implement and see positive and measurable outcomes, I believe this emergent equity plan and programming can becomes a state and national model.

Equity plan needs to address opportunities for all students

As BOE members have emphasized for years–even before Dr. Carpenter’s start in LSR7 in 2017–equity programming needs to target achievement gaps and opportunities for all students in LSR7. I strongly believe equity initiatives should include targeted programming for some of the students that are affected in racial subgroups, but also other subgroups: students with physical, developmental and mental health disabilities; students with socio-economic circumstances affecting achievement and opportunities; students experiencing home and familial crisis that may be affect them episodically or long-term; students in the LGBTQ community and others.

Continually increasing programming to prevent student suicides and prevent bullying must also be prominent in equity initiatives. I applaud the work of Rediscover in Lee’s Summit to provide anti-bullying training all the way down to the elementary school level. They are a state and national leader in mental health services right here in Lee’s Summit.

There are a lot of approaches to equity programming that can be non-controversial and not divisive in our community. Creating opportunities for all students to succeed and providing each student what they need can be done at every level and for all target demographics. I see a future in which hundreds to maybe even thousands of volunteers can be mobilized in LSR7 to give each student in need of equity services what they need to succeed.

The Bottom Line: Lee’s Summit is not fractured, LSR7 is not broken and our teachers are great

Lee’s Summit is not fractured, LSR7 is not broken and–most of all–our teachers are great. It bears repeating. The narrative needs to be driven by who we are, not negative social media and press. Our schools and the greater Lee’s Summit community simply need to continue to be what they have been and will continue to be–the best school district in Missouri and one of the most outstanding cities in Missouri and the nation. Both have been repeatedly recognized nationally.

Having had multiple communications and interactions with Dr. Carpenter and BOE members the last seven months and having talked with multiple students, parents and community leaders, I am very excited about the future of LSR7. This Thursday’s BOE meeting when the Board will transition–with two members stepping down and two new members stepping up–represents an exciting new beginning for LSR7.

We can, as Mayor Baird said, “come together as a community like we always have” and create an equity program that is reflective of the excellence of our schools and community. I am passionately committed to do whatever I can to help.

Jeff Grisamore is a consultant and former member of the Missouri House of Representatives (2007-2015) who represented Lee’s Summit, Greenwood and eastern Jackson County. He is a father of 10 children, 9 of whom have attended Lee’s Summit R-7 schools since 2003.