Outgoing Springfield Public Schools Board of Education president Dr. Denise Fredrick listens to candidates speak at a forum sponsored by the Springfield Chamber of Commerce on March 23, 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

In the final throes of the race for two Springfield Public Schools Board of Education seats, many district residents have received a campaign mailer paid in support of two of the four candidates.

The mailer, paid for by the Back on Track America PAC, encourages voters to support Landon McCarter, a marketing business CEO, and Chad Rollins, a pharmacist. Both are parents of students in the district.

Neither has been a professional educator.

And, according to the mailer, that’s a good thing.

At the bottom of the mailer is a message that doesn’t sit well with the departing president of the school board, Denise Fredrick, a retired SPS science teacher and administrator.

“REJECT: The two ‘experienced’ defenders of the failing status quo,” it reads.

That would be current board member Shurita Thomas-Tate, a Missouri State University professor, and Judy Brunner, a retired SPS administrator who founded a business centered around educational issues like school safety and anti-bullying strategies. 

“I think it’s disrespectful,” Fredrick said in an interview requested by the Springfield Daily Citizen. “I actually think it’s ridiculous to think that these individuals cannot bring that experience to serve on the school board and for that not be of value.”

The Back on Track America mailer points to a clear divide, encouraging voters to support McCarter and Rollins to partner with three of the board’s members — Kelly Byrne, Steve Makoski and Maryam Mohammadkhani — not the whole board. (McCarter and Rollins, in various interviews with the Springfield Daily Citizen, have said they would work with the full school board to reach a consensus on district matters.) 

If voters elect McCarter and Rollins, no members of the board presiding over the state’s largest school district will have a professional background in education.

That’s a prospect that caused Fredrick to do something she never planned to do. In her final days on the board after 12 years of serving on it, she spoke out about the upcoming election, and the value of having educators on the board. 

“I think whether it’s a teacher, administrator, a university professor, anyone that has dedicated their career to educating young people of our society, they should be valued — and honored,” Fredrick said Wednesday, a day after presiding over her final full school board meeting and a month after presiding over the most explosive one in many longtime observers’ memories. “I don’t know that there’s any better career that you can do than to dedicate your life to educating students.”

Fredrick didn’t reference any board candidates or members by name during her conversation with the Daily Citizen. She has thrown financial support behind one candidate, giving $500 to Brunner, the leading fundraiser among the four candidates, who has amassed about $85,000 in contributions during her first campaign for a board seat. 

Fredrick said she raised about $9,000 during her first campaign. Now, she said, “it’s not that way.” The money has changed, she said, and so has much else about the process of running for the local office. Sitting board members used to refrain from offering support for candidates, and some still do. Her decision to speak out in her final days on the board, she said, is a reflection of the changing times. 

Denise Fredrick, Springfield Public Schools board president, brought her own box of tissues to the Hillcrest High School ribbon-cutting. A Hillcrest alum, Fredrick said her “outstanding education” at the school inspired her to become a teacher and a community volunteer. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

‘They respected my experience’

Fredrick taught biology at Kickapoo High School for 17 years before moving up to an administrative role with the district, where she served 10 years before retiring. She went on to become the director of secondary education at Missouri State University before being encouraged to run for the school board in 2012. She won a seat in her first try, and successfully ran in her three subsequent election cycles. 

When she joined the board, she had been retired from the district for three years. She said serving on the school board is a vastly different job than working “in the trenches” as a school district employee. But her tenure at SPS, she said, was seen as a valuable asset in the decision-making processes that she and her colleagues on the board made.

In her first year on the board, Fredrick said she stayed largely quiet during meetings. It got to the point, she said, where a reporter asked her if she was ever going to say anything. “I felt that I needed that year to listen and learn,” Fredrick said. “Because I stepped out of being in the trenches of doing the work as an employee for the district to being in a totally different role. I was in an oversight, governance role and I was no longer doing the (day-to-day) work. 

“It certainly didn’t put me in a position where I felt like I needed to step on and start telling everyone how to do things.”

But Fredrick said that soon after joining the board, veteran members at the time like Tom Prater and Gerry Lee would turn to her for an educator’s insight on how potential decisions would go over in Springfield classrooms. 

“I believe they respected my experience,” she said. 


Former board members say perspective of educators is important

Prater said he and other board members benefited from having career educators serving on the board during his two terms on it.

“For the board to function well it needs members with a diverse set of skills and experiences,” Prater told the Daily Citizen. “It’s wrong and probably dangerous to say educators should not be on the board. Just like saying doctors or lawyers shouldn’t participate. Or just like saying only businessmen should run the board. During my six years on the board, it was helpful to turn to a retired teacher to question a new policy or ask how a certain change would work in the classroom. Teachers and students are our constituents as well. All have to be on board to improve academic achievement.”

Jill Patterson, a former SPS school board president, echoed some of the sentiments in a letter she emailed to the school board after a February meeting in which the board’s fissures were on full display in what she wrote was the “current toxic atmosphere on the SPS board.” That was the meeting where four members — Fredrick, Thomas-Tate, Scott Crise and Danielle Kincaid — outvoted Byrne, Makoski and Mohammadkhani and stripped Mohammadkhani of her vice presidency role in response to an incident in which she interjected during a seminar for students about racial trauma. 

In her letter, Patterson put her support behind Fredrick, Thomas-Tate, Crise and Kincaid by name while not naming the other three, writing she was “against those with personal agendas, unprofessional antics and support of national political agendas determined to tear down public schools.” 

Patterson, an attorney who went on to teach criminal justice courses at Missouri State University, noted in the letter that she had joined the ranks of SPS substitute teachers in her retirement. 

“To begin, let me declare that after six years serving on the board, I did not know what it looked like on ‘the ground’ so to speak and what SPS employees are contending with in order to utilize their various expertise to teach our children,” she wrote. “I frequently quote the country music song, ‘You should have seen it in color…’ to describe what I have witnessed and experienced since being immersed in the schools (and) watching and learning from our highly skilled, hard-working staff.

“There are many aspects of the field of education that have changed dramatically in the last 10 years or so that make their jobs so much more challenging. It sickens me that part of what they are fighting against is a board containing members who make their jobs even harder and seem to think they know better than those in the classrooms teaching our kids.”

School board member Kelly Byrne (hands on face) gathers his thoughts before speaking at the Feb. 28 school board meeting. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Byrne, in a Facebook post on his campaign page that included the email in full, said he would “reserve negative comments” while adding that he disagreed with Patterson’s sentiment. “I can only speak for myself,” he wrote. “My agenda is to help the district provide the opportunity for academic achievement for every SPS student.”

Mohammadkhani said during a recent radio interview that Patterson and others had come to believe that questioning any district decision or “try to move it in a positive direction,” that’s an attack on public education. 

“To even point to the bad scores is an attack on public education,” she said during an interview on Mornings with Nick Reed. “And that’s disheartening. Do you know what I mean?”

Springfield school superintendent Dr. Grenita Lathan, Board of Education president Dr. Denise Fredrick and members Dr. Maryam Mohammadkhani, Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate and Steve Makoski are seated at the dais during the Board of Education’s meeting on Feb. 28. 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Mohammadkhani: People who are part of the system can’t be trusted to fix it 

Mohammadkhani, in the radio interview, went on to describe the candidates with educator experience as members of an SPS “establishment,” which she viewed as a negative. 

“This is a really simple question posed to the people,” Mohammadkhani said. “Do you want things to just be the way they are, which is, we like it just as it is and you shut up and go away? Or do you want to solve the problems? I mean, do you want somebody who’s never going to question anything and who’s part of the establishment or do you want something different? It’s really simple, right?” 

Prior to her ouster from the VP role, she shared similar sentiments about the board race during a brief interview with the Daily Citizen.

“I’m a fan of outsiders,” Mohammadkhani said in January while attending the Hillcrest High School ribbon-cutting ceremony. “When you’ve been in the system for so long, it’s hard to see what’s wrong with it. 

“And I think it takes somebody from the outside. You can’t really trust people who are part of the system that broke to now fix it. It’s really hard. I’ve been in that position. It’s hard. You sometimes have to step outside and look at it — and we have incredible educators. Great administrative team. But when they’re in the forest amongst the trees, it’s hard for them to see it. So that’s, I think, where the board comes in, because you’re the liaison between the community and the district, and so you’re able to really bridge that. And I think to be able to bridge that, you need to not be on the inside.”

Fredrick challenged that narrative, pointing to several substantial shifts supported by boards on which she’s served. They included the district’s expansion of early childhood programming from a handful of classrooms to four dedicated centers and the ever-growing amount of choice programs available to students. The expansion happened with board-wide support of the district’s recommendations. 

“We know that if we want to have our children ready to come to school and learn, they need that early childhood experience,” she said.  “What a terrific gain we have made. And that has happened in the last 12 years.” 

She pointed to the district’s high graduation rates and initiatives to build up support staff for teachers in classrooms as well. 

Student teacher Cass Cavanaugh, (seated and not visible,) is completely surrounded by fourth grade students during a writing exercise. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Fredrick: Educators practice their jobs

Fredrick’s husband is an attorney, and she said she favors a description common in that occupation — the practice of law. Like attorneys practice law and physicians practice medicine, Fredrick said, educators practice their jobs. Fredrick said her biology classes included upwards of 30 students each period of the day she taught. They weren’t all going to take in the day’s lesson the same way, she said, and she worked over time to make sure more students got the most out of her biology instruction. 

“There was no exact answer of how I was going to provide material or the content to every student the exact same way every day and when they left at the end of the day, they were all going to know exactly what it was I presented to them,” Fredrick said. “Because students are not widgets, Students are not exactly the same. And they’re not going to learn everything exactly the same. I had that one chance each day to present the material and hope at the end of the day, they all got it. And then I would come back the next day and try to start again, and say what did you get from yesterday? And what do we need to do to maybe go back and re-teach. It’s the practice of education.”

Fredrick said having been an educator helped her understand that when teachers voiced a need, she wanted to try and address it with her board vote. She told the Daily Citizen she learned early on not to revisit votes once they’d been cast, but at the reporter’s request, she explained her process on a recent one that failed, a 4-3 decision not to buy touchscreen Chromebooks for each of the district’s kindergarten students. 

In the leadup to the recent vote, Fredrick called for administrators to survey kindergarten teachers about their technology needs and how they would use them in the classrooms. 

“I feel like that we are board members, that we have limited classroom experience,” Fredrick said during a Feb. 14 discussion about the purchase that was later voted down on Feb. 28. “Certainly with early learning. And we are talking about some important decisions here that will affect the — we’re talking about a decision that would limit our teachers’ ability to do their job. So if we should make a decision that we, this board, decide no technology for kindergartners, then our kindergarten teachers will have to manage that. So I would like to hear from the experts in the classroom.  

“Because we are not the experts here.”

The survey of 63 SPS kindergarten teachers found that 56 said they wanted each of their students to have access to a Chromebook or similar device during the school day, and that 59 of the 63 said the devices would either be used zero to 10 percent of the typical school day (37 teachers) or 11 to 20 percent (22 teachers).

Fredrick said her vote to support the purchase was an indication of trust in teachers to follow through on how they said they would be used in a limited fashion. 

“I would have thought, ‘I am not valued,’” she said. “‘What I need to help my students be prepared for the next level is not a value to my board. I’m going to go find another place to teach.’ I mean, that’s pretty strong words, but there are districts around that would ensure that I had the tools I needed to teach.”

The board could lose that educator’s perspective depending on how the votes break April 4. Whether that’s for better or worse is a matter of strong opinion.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson