These have been the assurances coming from Lee’s Summit R-7 Superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter, administrators, Board of Education members and candidates for the board during the past three years as the district looks to move on from a series of public relations stumbles related to past decisions from the superintendent on down.
A major policy and communications misstep on the part of the Lee’s Summit R-7 administration and Board of Education should lead them to a sobering conclusion: board policies need to be reviewed — immediately.
In a stunning admission, the district’s legal counsel — Joe Hatley of law firm Spencer Fane LLC — confirmed recently that the district did in fact allow two elected board members to apply for a position within the district. And even more concerning is that one of them elevated all the way to a top three finalist for the director of communications spot, which ultimately went to Kelly Wachel.
In a time when board actions and administrative decisions are followed as closely as any in recent memory, this policy fumble must be addressed.
It’s clear a policy the board is supposed to be following was violated. The question remains: who is accountable for that violation? These are conversations we should be having in the public eye and with as much openness as we can tolerate.
Rumors of the applications and interview process had been swirling for months in and out of the Stansberry Leadership Center. For a position like this, an interview team is assembled (made up of various administrators, district principals and others) and the process is most likely followed in a regimented manner. In this case, however, you had the extreme wildcard: elected officials applying for that position held for decades by Janice Phelan.
This is where it gets dicey. Missouri Sunshine Law and state statutes are pretty specific about the privacy of job applicants in public sectors. And this is something I will agree to disagree with our district. But still, the law is the law.
So, when questions went to Carpenter and Wachel about the rumors that at least one current board members had not only applied, but was a finalist for a job within the district, the answers were short and direct: we don’t discuss job applicants. Carpenter and Wachel should have owned this blunder and gotten ahead of the story. Ducking it or punting to the district’s attorney frankly insults the common sense of an engaged community.
It seems obvious their job applicant status shouldn’t supersede their elected status. Board members are subject to all aspects of the Sunshine Law, including electronic mail correspondence in several instances. And when board members apply for jobs in the district, you open up a whole arsenal of conflict of interest issues, not to mention the challenging position you put the search committee in.
Instead of owning the mistake, the district opted for the privacy of applicants — applicants that are public servants and elected by the voters of the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District.
This is not transparent. This isn’t best-practice communications. And it smacks of more inside baseball and political maneuvering that we were supposed to be getting away from with our board and administration.
Clearly, someone stood up and made the right decision as Wachel was ultimately offered and accepted the position. But you better believe there was major heartburn during the process. And that’s not something we need to just cure away with a little antacid.
Strangely, Hatley has decided to fall on his sword for the misgiving. He says the mistake was not intentional and that during a meeting with Carpenter, Hatley (responding to a question from the superintendent about board members applying for the position) gave his opinion that, under state law, they could apply, but not be hired until they resign their board position.
That, folks, was just plain bad advice. It shows a lack of knowledge of the official board policy, not only by the administration, but by the attorney who is supposed to be interpreting this and giving legal guidance to our board members.
Here’s how the policy reads: “The district shall not employ Board members for compensation even on a substitute or part-time basis. The district will not accept applications of employment from Board members, consider Board members for employment or decide to employ Board members while they remain on the School Board. Board members may provide services on a volunteer basis.”
Much of the above was ignored as the district sought to replace Phelan. And since board policy surpasses state law, one would rightfully assume that the second any board member put in an application for a job that this section of the policy would have been researched immediately. While it’s honorable for Hatley to take the blame, he hardly bares the burden on his own.
So how many board policies are not a restatement of state laws? What other legal advice is Hatley giving that is based on state law and not our own board policy? Let’s ask those questions.
When I asked Hatley this, he responded via email: “The District reviews policies as the Missouri School Boards Association proposes revisions to those policies, or when situations arise that show the need for clarification of a policy. Typically, when MSBA recommends a policy, it notes whether the policy would exceed the requirements of state law, but those warnings are not reproduced in the policies once they are adopted. In this particular situation, the part of policy BBFA dealing with the employment of board members had not been revised for many years, so this particular discrepancy between policy and state law was not known by anyone involved in the hiring process until it had progressed to the finalist stage. Everyone associated with the district makes good faith efforts to comply with board policy, and that includes regularly consulting board policy when a problem arises that is not governed by state law. This was an unusual situation that is highly unlikely to be repeated.”
The district and Hatley refused to name the school board members. And since I don’t have it on the record, I am not going to do that either. But my guess is you can find out.
We must continue to ask questions of our board and administration. It is essential we continue to demand better and more consistent communication. We are compelled to do these things so that our award-winning school district can continue to deliver on its stated goals and promises.
This is a setback. How do we address this issue to move forward? Let’s ask those questions.
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.