Dennis Carpenter said that as a school leader in the Kansas City metro area, he couldn't pass up the chance to be considered for superintendent of one state's most highly regarded districts.
Carpenter, currently the superintendent for the nearby Hickman Mills School District, was announced Monday morning as the next leader of the Lee's Summit School District. He will continue at Hickman Mills until he takes the Lee's Summit post July 1. The district says it expects to have Carpenter's contract finalized before the next board of education meeting Jan. 19.
David Benson, who has been serving as interim superintendent this school year after David McGehee's departure following a contentious spring, says he will help Carpenter's transition while he finishes his work at Hickman Mills.
McGehee's contract made him the state's highest-paid superintendent, with a total compensation of $397,000 in his last year, but in 2016 he came under fire from some board members and others in the community who believed his relationship with a principal in the law firm that represented the district at the time represented a conflict of interest. McGehee later reached a separation agreement with the district.
Carpenter, who last year was a finalist for the Hazelwood superintendent position, said the search firm Lee's Summit used, BWP and Associates, contacted him about the position first, and he gave it some thought and his family prayed about it. When he learned he'd been selected, he felt, “Truly, truly humbled.”
“They put forth one of the more rigorous processes I believe can exist,” he said.
Carpenter said he wants to make sure Lee's Summit – with a current enrollment of nearly 18,000 students, a staff of more than 2,600 and three of the state's largest high schools – is one of the elite districts not only in the state but in the nation.
“We should be the model of all that works in public education,” he said.
In selecting Carpenter from among 36 applicants, Board President Bob White said the board was fortunate to find a leader of his caliber.
“We worked very hard to find the right person for our community,” White said, and as superintendent for Hickman Mills for the last four years, he has accomplished a great many things during his tenure there, as well as his time in previous districts.
“Our board was especially impressed not only with Dr. Carpenter's character and integrity, but also by the wealth of experience he has in so many aspects of school leadership important to our district and our community. He has extensive experience and has made great progress in such areas as academic success for students, fiscal management and day-to-day operations, community involvement, staff engagement and strategic planning.”
Before his time at Hickman Mills, Carpenter had been deputy superintendent for operations and associate superintendent for human resources for Newton County Schools in Covington, Georgia, about 35 miles southeast of Atlanta. In addition, he had worked as an assistant superintendent for support services, middle school principal and elementary school principal in Georgia. In all, he has 21 years of experiences in public education.
At Hickman Mills, Carpenter implemented full-day pre-kindergarten for all district 4-year-olds – an initiative he said was needed there much more than he believes it would be in Lee's Summit – led the drive for a $19 million bond passage and helped the district's substantial improvements in attendance and graduation rates and test scores. The district's annual performance report increased by 19 percent in 2014, the state's largest increase among urban and suburban districts.
Carpenter said his first few months on the job in Lee's Summit will be mostly gathering observations around the district before sharing his suggestions and concerns.
“Lots of looking, lots of listening, lots of learning,” he said. “I think I'm being charged with being the lead learner in the community.
“The only non-negotiable is that we do what's best for the children first.”
Carpenter's wife LaQuanda had been a principal in Georgia. The couple have a young son Landen and daughter Layla.
“I reserve sharing their nicknames until a later date,” he joked.