SHIFTING CULTURE

rpulley@lsjournal.com tporter@lsjournal.comJune 26, 2013 

This article is the second of three looking at diversity in Lee’s Summit in anticipation of a report by the Lee’s Summit Human Relations Commission.

Lee’s Summit’s major public employers, the city and school district, are hiring mostly white people – a percentage notably high when compared to the ethnic mix of the overall city.

The 2010 census put the white population for Lee’s Summit at 86.1 percent while the percentage of full-time white employees for the city is 94.3 percent (of 637 full-time employees.)

For schools, the gap is far wider.

In the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, 95 percent of employees are white, while the student population is only 78 percent white.

The number of teachers who are members of a minority group is 32 of 1,239 certified teachers, only 2 percent.

Emmanuel Ngomsi, chairman of the Lee’s Summit Human Relations Commission, said he’d had a couple of phone calls complaining about the lack of minority people working for the city. The Commission is preparing a report on diversity for release later this year. (Ngomsi is president of a diversity training company and has done work for both the city and school district.)

Ngomsi said a crucial issue is schools because it affects children’s learning.

“Research has shown that children learn better when teachers understand their culture and they understand the teachers,” Ngomsi said.

For that reason, making certain teachers have appropriate diversity training is necessary, he said.

“Lee’s Summit is way, way from where it needs to be,” Ngomsi said.

Mayor Randy Rhoads said he hasn’t examined the numbers provided to the Journal by the city staff.

“I haven’t heard of flagrant discrimination,” Rhoads said. “Possibly we could do better, I don’t know.”

Rhoads said that he is waiting for the Commission to finish its work on its diversity report.

“The Council has historically been pretty good when responding to task forces and reports,” Rhoads said. “The main thing I’d like to see is that we’re in a proactive mode.”

Councilmember Allan Gray said he thinks the number will improve as the city examines its recruiting methods.

Being open and inclusive is a competitive advantage, Gray said, because the number of women-owned and minority-owned businesses continues to increase and a community that is open will attract the most talented individuals.

“The city as a whole values diversity and inclusiveness,” Gray said. “People should see themselves reflected in city government.”

He noted that diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity and encompasses gender, age, class, people with disabilities and more.

“There’s diversity of thought,” Gray said.

It is a deficit being worked on by the city, said Daren Fristoe, the city’s new assistant city manager for development, who is also director of human resources. He said one reason the city’s workforce looks the way it does is it has little turnover.

“We don’t lose a lot of people, we have low attrition with a lot of people who spend the majority of their careers here,” Fristoe said.

The workforce, nonetheless, has a wide range of age groups, he said. It has 175 of the 637 full-time positions filled by women. It doesn’t track how many employees have disabilities.

Last year it provided diversity training for department heads and senior leadership, but it was no more than 20 people.

He said the expectation is that the training would disperse to lower levels, but his department has not tracked diversity training offered within the other departments. He said training, except or safety, has been very decentralized within city government.

Fristoe said one initiative he is undertaking is an expanded employee development program for improving skills and for diversity training. He said that recruiting in the past has been passive, but the city attempts to gather a broad range of applicants.

It lists job openings on its website, on the city cable channel, and on websites such as Careerbuilder.com, and advertised in local newspapers such as The Call and Dos Mundos, publications expected to reach minority groups, as well as in industry specific, professional publications.

In the future, he said, the plan is to “look for talent at job fairs, campus placement offices and on social media.

“We’re looking for the most qualified candidates to join our team,” Fristoe said.

Police departments across the country struggle to recruit and keep qualified minority and female police officer applicants.

“The Lee’s Summit Police Department is not probably much different than most police departments in that we want our police officers to reflect the diversity in the community that they patrol, or that they serve,” Police Chief Joe Piccinini said. “Every police department works diligently to hire and recruit minorities, and we did too for a number of years. It was always on our minds and it was something that we actively worked on, but we weren’t having a lot of success.”

The department in recent years tried new advertising strategies to reach the minority community and find job candidates. Additionally the department evaluated the prerequisite qualifications for the position of police officer.

Nationally, Piccinini said, the trend is moving toward requiring officer candidates to have a minimum of an associate’s degree or equivalent military or police experience. The department reduced minimum qualifications to a high school diploma with college coursework to allow more candidates to reach the interview board after written tests, although a degree was still preferred.

“During the last two years, our recruitment efforts have been successful at drawing a more diverse pool of applicants to the process,” Piccinini said. “We have increased diversity in our non-sworn ranks, but applicants have struggled with the rigorous hiring process that is associated with the position of police officer.”

Currently, the Lee’s Summit Police Department has 196 employees with 135 of them being sworn officers. Of those 135 officers, 16 are females, five are black, and one officer is Hispanic.

Of the 61 civilian employees within the department 46 are females. Two blacks and one Hispanic are on the civilian staff.

“The police department will continue to explore new ideas for reaching out to the minority communities and making them a part of our hiring process,” Piccinini said.

The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District has a relatively low number of minority employees for a school district that counted 17,558 students (78 percent white, 13.6 percent black; 5.1 percent Hispanic) enrolled for the 2012-13 school year.

Of the 2,671 employees on staff in the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, 95 percent, or 2,541, of them are white. The district counts 71 blacks, 35 Hispanics, 13 Asian-Americans, 6 multi-ethnic people and five Alaskan/American Indian people among the staff.

The district covers 117 square miles, taking in more cities in addition to Lee’s Summit.

The district’s five-year strategic Comprehensive School Improvement Plan includes a focus on staff diversity. It says the district will actively recruit and continuously develop diverse, highly qualified staff.

The plan calls for making programs, scholarships and learning opportunities available to students who have interest in pursuing careers in education. It includes opportunities for current high-school students in a teacher cadet program and a supervised business experience program. School counselors make students aware of scholarships and advise them on career pathways in education.

The district seeks diverse candidates through the recruitment that includes campus interviews, networking with local professional organizations and universities, and personal recommendations from current employees.

“The key to our district’s success is our high-quality staff members,” said Jeff Miller, R-7 assistant superintendent for human resources. “Our employment practice is to always hire the best candidate for the position, and we work closely with our school principals and department supervisors to ensure that we have the best possible employee working with our students.”

Next Wednesday the Journal will make a final report in this series on what trends are found in crime, housing, incomes and education levels as the population has grown.

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