Lawsuit adds another layer of complexity to our school discussion

As the board of education election nears and the district scrambles for damage control on many fronts, things are seemingly just getting messier for the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District.

Dr. Amy Gates, a 28-year employee of the district and the current executive director of technology, has filed suit against her employer for failing to produce requested documents under the Missouri Revised Statutes 610 code, otherwise known as the Sunshine Law.


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And while many subplots are outlined in the actual legal petition — including allegations of discrimination and board policy violations — make no mistake, this is not a discrimination case. This is a Sunshine Law violation case.

The legal document unfortunately reads like a storyline that won’t surprise some district constituents. It begins with an interview team deliberating among three finalists for the job of executive director of communications, a group that included Kelly Wachel (the victor of the three), an unnamed school board member and an unnamed black woman.

Gates subsequently made an allegation of discrimination in February of 2018 against Superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter based on his alleged refusal to consider the black female for the job based solely on her race.

The onion peels quickly from there, as an outside firm was brought in to investigate that particular allegation. The district found, according to the legal petition, that Carpenter’s alleged statements violated the spirit of the district’s anti-discrimination policy, but the district itself determined no violation took place.

On Jan. 8 of this year, Gates filed a request under the Sunshine Law to obtain all documents related to the hiring of the outside firm, all complaints against Carpenter, documents or communications between district personnel or agents of the district and the outside firm, payments made to the firm and other related documentation.

This is at the heart of this suit — a suit in which Gates is not seeking a financial payday, but rather a moral and ethical victory for the district to come clean about this series of events.

Of course, all of this started with a board policy violation owned by the district’s legal counsel, Joe Hatley of the Spencer Fane law firm. Hatley’s decision to fall on his sword and accept blame for the mistake may be viewed as honorable, but it certainly wasn’t principled.

This mistake — one owned via an e-mail to me from current board president Phyllis Balagna — could have and should have been remedied a year ago. Getting in front of the story takes courage and fortitude and commitment and the school district has got to start doing that. If they had, we may not be in this position today. Instead, a still unnamed members the Board was allowed to apply and become a finalist for the position, which, according to the petition, involved overt backing from Carpenter.

Balagna has done many wonderful things for Lee’s Summit over many decades. I think it is, in turn, honorable for her to own the fact she applied (based on the advice of counsel and the superintendent).

Now, we’re faced with a lawsuit that may beget more legal action against R-7. That means depositions, hearings and a mountain of legal work ahead. Both sides will be in defense mode. And both sides had better be sure they have the documentation to back up their claims and counter-claims.

Ted Kapke, an attorney with the Lee’s Summit firm Kapke Wilerth and representing Gates, sent a statement on the lawsuit this morning:

“Dr. Gates, like many other faculty, staff and administrators with the Lee’s Summit School District, has dedicated her professional life to educating children. There have been a series of recent events that have called into question the direction of the District including illegal comments and processes in connection with the hiring process for a key District position. Dr. Gates pursued her concerns within the appropriate internal channels. However, as her lawsuit alleges, the appropriate channels and oversights are not being followed, including failure to comply with basic open records requirements. Dr. Gates is compelled to bring this action to bring about accountability for what appears to be illegal conduct on multiple levels which has resulted in dysfunction throughout the District.”

R-7 District Executive Director of Public Relations Kelly Wachel also released a statement on the suit:

“The Lee’s Summit School District acknowledges receipt of a lawsuit brought upon the District in regards to a Sunshine Law request. As such, we will be defending the lawsuit in court, not in the media at this time. As you know, the District is committed to student success and we will be celebrating our Annual Performance Report today, as our students and staff have much to be proud of in our academic achievements.”

Wachel tackles two topics in this statement worthy of diving into a bit. First, the district’s APR was glowing and will unfortunately be somewhat muted with the news of this lawsuit.

And frankly, that’s sad because had the district simply acknowledged the board policy violation, we may not even be in a position where legal action had to be taken. The unfortunate advice of the attorney is still reverberating throughout the district and now into the courtroom.

Secondly, Wachel uses a line that is common in these instances, insisting the district will not defend the suit in the “media.” The thing is, the media has been used in defense of the district at every turn recently. Picking and choosing when the district will and will not engage the media is a dangerous practice, especially when you need them for the “good news” stories.

Ultimately, this lawsuit speaks to much bigger issues in our leadership and in many areas. And its more distraction for the teachers and staff that, by God, just want to educate our children.

We must be bold enough to ask for the best possible leadership in our city, our school district, in our neighborhoods, social circles, faith communities, nonprofits and in the business community.

Are we demanding such leadership?

 

Editor's Note: John Beaudoin is a Lee's Summit resident and award winning writer and former newspaper publisher in the Lee's Summit community. Views and opinions expressed in his columns do not necessarily reflect those of Link 2 Lee's Summit, it's employees or any other guest contributors.