I don’t think this is the ending any of us wanted.
Or maybe it is. I don’t know.
It’s so hard to really feel the pulse of our community right now in relationship to the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, it’s stated goals on equitable education and the now departed superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter.
As I’m sure you’ve all heard (and you can read about it here) the LSR7 Board of Education and Carpenter agreed to part ways this week. While technicalities allow for it to be called a resignation, let’s not fool ourselves here. This was an — ahem — amicable dismissal that sees the district paying Carpenter $750,000.
It’s been really loud in Lee’s Summit during the past several months. Voices have been raised in coffee shops, the district Board Room, driveways and (especially) social media forums. Righteous indignation (on all sides) have hit levels of extreme usually reserved for debates on national political issues.
I’d like to be able to say we’re unaccustomed to this on a local level. That should be the case. But I think we’ve seen this kind of sewer muck seep into our local conversations a lot over the last 3 years.
In recent years, we’ve seen verbal hyperbole lighting fires in our elections, inside the City Council chambers and our school district. It’s not pretty. It’s not fun. And none of us should be proud.
Over the past month, I’ve heard a lot of voices screaming a similar line — “Come on, Lee’s Summit is better than this!” We’ve seen a lot of people very, very worried with the image of Lee’s Summit from the outside. There has been valid concern over how are neighbors now view this community we love and whether the turmoil we’ve been experiencing will prevent new people from moving in, drive current residents and businesses out, or even a combination of both.
Those voices aren’t wrong. While I, or you, may disagree with their definition of “better,” the fact is we’re the ones responsible for creating those perspectives. The image has been painted by the strokes of our words and an uncanny inability to hold civil discussions with those who disagree.
This column is not about whether or not Carpenter’s leadership was sound. It’s not about the merits of the Board’s negotiated dismissal of the man they hired.
The reason for my commentary is to pose a few questions to myself, our elected representatives and to my fellow residents. The real issue to be considered and discussed is where do we go from here? How do we effectively close this chapter and move on to creating a realistic image of this community we chose to call home.
Let’s start with Board of Education and the people we’ve elected to that dais. Yes, many of the names have changed, but we’re now looking at elected leaders who have doled out a staggering $1.2 million to dismiss two consecutive hires. The following is admittedly oversimplified, but a Board of Education has essentially three duties: hire a superintendent to lead the district; hold that hire accountable to the given mission; and approve (responsibly — see previous duty) the budget put forth by the superintendent and administration.
The dismissals of Carpenter, and before him, Dr. David McGehee, not only cost this district money, it’s also came at a hefty public relations price. The turmoil surrounding both was very public and often found the administrator and board members taking the fight to both news and social media platforms.
Whether you agree with the decisions to dismiss or not, you can’t argue the fact consecutive buyouts of approximately $450,000 and $750,000 is a bad look for the district.
So, here are the questions.
Do our elected officials fully understand their role and the gravity of not only their decisions, but of the words they use from their public positions of authority? Do they truly understand the role and duties of the superintendent? Have they received adequate training to know how the board interacts with the superintendent and what a strong Board/CEO relationship looks like?
On the flip side. Are we, the voters informed enough to determine which candidates can best answer the above questions? Are we asking them the right questions before heading to the ballot box? Are we holding them accountable after the election?
My own honest truth is while I think the answer to most of those questions is a resounding “No,” I’m not sure I could fully, or effectively, answer the questions poised to the candidates and board members. What I do know is we all need to not only ask more questions, we need to ask better questions.
As a member of the media I haven’t asked enough of the right questions both during election cycles and during these public debates. I can and will do better.
As residents, taxpayers and voters (yes, I’m lumping everyone together and yes, it’s a little bit unfair — but justified) YOU need to ask more and better questions. You need to do better.
Questions are how we narrow the field and better define the candidates we need to represent us. Questions are how we hold them accountable once they’re elected. We must ask questions and we must demand real answers.
And finally, every single one of us needs to look in the mirror and come to grips with the fact we failed. As a community we have 100 percent failed to have real and effective conversation on not just race, but how we approach public education and the students the district serves. We failed to be the type of person we claim to be. We failed.
We absolutely have to hold ourselves accountable and do whatever possible to improve the way we tackle issues in this community.
There is no argument Carpenter and the leaders we elected failed to use their positions of leadership to set an example of effective dialogue. But the fact is, we can’t put all of the blame on them. We need to own a portion of it as well.
Our community allowed itself to be divided. We drew lines in the sand at every possible moment and vilified any who disagreed. The irony that such division came over a debate on how to best be inclusive should not be lost on us.
Instead of actually spending time discussing how best to reach the district’s stated goals, we’ve spent month after month after month taking sides and yelling “racist/not racist.”
This is on us.
We have to find a way to address difficult issues without instantaneous vilification and invalidation of those with a different perspective. We have to find a way to ditch the hyperbole that only serves to detract from the real issue at hand. We have to find a way to remember the answer usually lies somewhere in the middle.
I have a friend who is fond of the phrase “words matter.” He’s not wrong. Politically, he and I agree on maybe 40-50 percent of the issues. And while we sometimes frustrate the crap out of each other and even have the occasional heated debate, we always seem to remember there is mutual respect for our individual perspectives and opinions. And much of that respect comes from the knowledge we both carry deep passions for our community and its future.
So, yes Lee’s Summit, we are better than image currently depicted. But it’s up to us make that happen. We have to stay informed. We have to demand accountability. And we have to take responsibility for how we talk about the hard issues with our neighbors.
Because in the end, it’s on us.
Editor's Note: Nick Parker is the publisher of Link 2 Lee’s Summit and host of the Lee’s Summit Town Hall podcast. He is an award-winning journalist and community activist.