Paraeducator Teresa Tolbirt took her daughter to the podium to discuss challenges she would face if the school district follows through with plans to change her pay structure. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

After Springfield Public Schools’ newly elected board members were sworn in and its new officers were narrowly elected, the new board heard from the public. And as with many recent school board meetings, the district’s decision to end annualized pay was on many of the speakers’ minds. 

Seven of the nine who signed up to speak at the April 11 meeting were SPS staff members who said the district should reconsider the decision, which will end the process of stretching out nine- and 10-month employees’ wages over the course of a full year. 

Employees have said receiving larger paychecks during the months they are working, and no paychecks during the months they are not, could negatively affect access to food stamps, home and car loans and disability benefits. District leaders have offered to meet with employees one-on-one to address unique scenarios, held information sessions and created a new type of savings account in an effort to transition all 1,100 employees off of annualized pay in the summer of 2024. It’s a decision being made as the district implements a new payroll system, and it’s not a decision that has been reconsidered. 

It was also an issue board member Kelly Byrne brought up in the middle of comments he made at the end of the night. They were made in the midst of accusing new board President Danielle Kincaid of leading “what amounted to a coup” to remove Maryam Mohammadkhani from her vice president role after she interjected herself during a Youth Empowerment Summit session for SPS high school seniors that addressed racial trauma. 

The board, Byrne said, received “maybe a dozen” emails about the incident. (They included emails from leaders of Missouri State University, Burrell Behavioral Health and Springfield’s NAACP chapter, which had leadership roles in hosting the summit, as well as letters from students who were there.) Byrne said it was “far less than we have received from our hourly workers about annualized pay, for example. However there has been no action here. Not even a question, that I can recall.” 

Several weeks prior to the meeting, Byrne had asked questions and listened to concerns from a collection of about 20 hourly employees during a Zoom meeting he requested an employee set up after emailing him and other board members. It was a meeting that then-board member Denise Fredrick made clear Byrne was attending as an individual, and not as a representative of the board, according to board emails the Springfield Daily Citizen obtained through a Sunshine Law records request. 

“The matter of pay frequency is an administrative decision to be addressed by the Superintendent and her leadership based on their unique understanding of day-to-day needs and operations,” Fredrick wrote to Byrne on March 20, the day he joined the Zoom meeting. “As such, you have not been authorized by the board to speak on behalf of the board.”

Byrne, both in an email response to Fredrick and in an interview with the Daily Citizen, said he understood he was not representing the board and that the decision regarding annualized pay is up to Superintendent Grenita Lathan, and that he was there to listen. 

“I’m not going to be in a position to make this type of decision on my own,” he said. “We have to trust what the district does, but I think we can further those conversations just to make sure that we’re not missing anything. And just to make sure that we are doing the right thing and didn’t overlook anything along the way. Ultimately, Dr. Lathan and her team are going to have to make this decision. And I’m just doing the best to my ability to make sure that we’ve left no stone unturned.”

Springfield Public School Board of Education member Kelly Byrne, pictured at the February meeting when Maryam Mohammadkhani was removed as vice president, said he believes it’s his duty as an elected official to listen to concerns. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Responses to employee concerns show board members taking different tacks

Barbara Dershimer, a paraeducator at Delaware Elementary and one of the speakers at the April 11 meeting, hosted the March 20 Zoom call Byrne requested after another staff member had emailed the board. 

“He was very empathetic,” she said. “He took a lot of time with us, probably like an hour, which was really nice. He wasn’t in a hurry. And he asked lots of questions.” 

She said he listened to the issues brought up by staff members on the call who have expressed concerns about losing their benefits. As staff members have said during public comment sessions, some are concerned that the new pay structure will impact their financial stability. 

“I have spoken to an accountant, and I will be short 50 dollars a month with this new pay system they want to give to us,” wrote the staff member whose email led Byrne to request a Zoom call. “This may not be a lot to some people, but for me it is HUGE. I am a single mom, so this is gas in my car, food on the table, doctor visits and so much more.” 

Byrne said it was helpful to him to hear from employees in a different format from the public comment session, which limits speakers to three minutes and offers no opportunity for dialogue during board meetings. 

“So any opportunities, I’m going to take, and I think that that’s my responsibility as a publicly elected official,” he said. “It’s delicate, because I don’t want to ever be jumping in front of Dr. Lathan and what she’s trying to do. So I have to be very clear that I’m certainly not trying to do that. Or the other board members, for that matter. But I think it’s within my responsibility to have my ears open and to take advantage of any of those opportunities that I can as long as I’m clear that all I’m here to do is ask questions, listen and learn. And I’m not here to provide direction. And I’m happy to do that on any number of topics if people reach out to me. 

“Now, I’m not going to be able to meet one-on-one (with) individuals on every issue. But if there’s something that rises to the top where there’s multiple people in the community that are concerned with this one issue and there’s a way that we can get together and I can just listen, then I’m happy to do that.”

In meeting with the group, he said it allowed him an opportunity to listen to concerns “to help me kind of determine the difference between what may be misunderstandings, and what may be very real and valid concerns that I wanted to make sure that I addressed with staff to make sure that those issues were handled.” 

Byrne said as much in an email to Fredrick, board vice president Scott Crise, Superintendent Lathan and John Mulford, deputy superintendent, after the call. 

“I had my Zoom meeting with the hourly employees,” Byrne wrote on March 20. “About 20 were on the call. I was very clear that I was only there to listen and didn’t speak for the district or the board. It seems to me like a lot of this may be communication and we could possibly do a better job making sure they know they are heard. Grenita, can we meet so I can ask you some of the questions they asked me?” 

Byrne said he spoke with Lathan, Mulford and Cara Stassel, executive director of business services, and relayed what he heard during the meeting to them. He said he was assured that the district is affording employees the opportunity to meet one-on-one with HR staff to address any specific concerns about the pending change. 

It was different tack than one taken by another board member who received the same email from the staff member who said she’d spoken to her accountant. Kincaid emailed Lathan and Fredrick within 90 minutes of receiving the email to ask Lathan that “someone from your team please reach out to (the staff member) to alleviate her concerns” and to reach out to Kincaid to confirm whether they were unfounded or not. 

Lathan emailed back that night, saying “We reached out to her several weeks ago” and Kincaid thanked her in response. 

Teresa Tolbirt escorts her daughter from the April 11 Springfield Public Schools board meeting after bringing her along to the podium to talk about challenges she’d face if annualized pay was eliminated. (Photo by Cory Matteson)

Staff continue to express concerns at public meetings; district administrators say doors are open to address individual concerns

Since the decision was announced to staff earlier this year, numerous employees have voiced their concerns about the end of annualized pay during public comment sessions at school board meetings. Last Tuesday was the first time one of the employees brought their child up to the podium with her. When it was Teresa Tolbirt’s turn to speak on April 11, she wheeled her 9-year-old daughter into the well between the podium and the board. 

A paraprofessional at Adah Fulbright Early Childhood Center, Tolbirt said she joined the district four years ago. She is a single mother of three foster and adoptive “to three wonderful girls, all with disabilities.” 

Her child she brought with her to the meeting, Tolbirt said, has cerebral palsy, autism and a seizure disorder. She said she had to leave several jobs in the behavioral health field because she was unable to find someone to give the girl proper care when Tolbirt was at work. 

“She has serious and life-threatening medical conditions,” she said. “I want to spend every vacation, break, snow day and summer with her that I can. If she is home, I want to be home with her.”

Tolbirt said she receives disability checks for her other two children, adopted twins, and the amount she receives is tied to her monthly pay, rather than her annual salary. 

“This pay schedule change would put me over the monthly limits to receive their checks,” she said. 

While she said she and other employees have an emotional attachment to the students they serve, she has a greater emotional attachment to being able to feed and shelter her children.

In her public comments on April 11, Dershimer said she was baffled by a decision that would impact the lives of some of the hardest working, and lowest paid, staff in the district. She requested that the district make the decision an option, or at least grandfather in current employees. She told the Daily Citizen that the district should survey its support staff, and raised concerns that many of the employees will look for work elsewhere. 

Mulford, in an earlier interview with the Daily Citizen, said this was a decision that would make some employees happy and upset others, and it wasn’t the type that the district would survey employees on. Instead, he said it’s one that has to be made. 

At the end of a preliminary budget presentation at the April 11 meeting, Mulford took time to point out that the board had heard a lot about annualized pay earlier in the evening. He wanted to make sure that the members were aware that Stassel was reaching out to everyone who has spoken at public comment sessions to invite them to a one-on-one meeting to address their specific concerns. Dershimer said she received an invitation a day after the meeting, and was likely to take Stassel up on it. 

“That door remains open, and every situation is unique and different, and she’ll be reaching out to any of our speakers tonight she’s not already met with to try to talk about their situation,” Mulford said. “Because the last thing we want is for anybody to have harm to them or their family. So we want to try to help them resolve that. And I just want you to know that we’re doing that.” 

On March 17, Mulford emailed all the board members, noting that some non-exempt employees had emailed the board members recently about annualized pay. His email included a bullet-pointed list of key rationale behind the change. 

The email points to recommendations from the district’s auditors to “align with human resource and payroll best practices and reduce the risk for payroll-related errors,” and it points to a set of complaints that were filed last year in relation to alleged payroll errors. It states that non-exempt SPS employees filed complaints with the Missouri State Auditor’s Office and the U.S. Department of Labor accusing the district of withholding funds owed to employees “as a result of annualized pay.” The district wasn’t found to be in violation in either case, according to the email, but both the state and federal agencies “recommended the district consider ending the practice of annualized pay and move to a model of ‘pay for hours worked,’” according to the email. 

The district will continue to work with employees to address concerns about impacts to federal assistance, the email states, and options will be available to fill periods where nine- or 10-month employees would go unpaid. There remain options to take on summer work, though employees like Dershimer said they considered summers off to be a perk of working at the district for over two decades. The district is also establishing an option to allow employees to divert 29 percent of their earnings — the rough estimate of how much more pay nine-month employees would receive immediately — into an interest-earning savings account that could only be accessed during summer months. 

“And I think that’s a great idea, and I’m open to that,” Dershimer said. “But my problem is, this isn’t just about me. I care about my colleagues. I don’t want them to lose food stamps. I don’t want them to lose their house.”

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