Judy Brunner, left, and Shurita Thomas-Tate were sworn into office as members of the Springfield school board on April 11, 2023, by Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

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In a sign that divisions among Springfield Public Schools board members remain strong after April’s election cycle, the new board officers were both chosen April 11 on 4-3 votes. Even deciding how to elect them was determined by a 4-3 vote. 

Danielle Kincaid is the new SPS board president and Scott Crise will continue on as vice president after first assuming the role in February following a 4-3 decision to strip then-VP Maryam Mohammadkhani of the title. That was a decision board member Kelly Byrne referred to as a “coup” in comments at the end of the first meeting after the April 4 election.

Leading vote-getter Judy Brunner and incumbent Shurita Thomas-Tate, who beat out third-place finisher Landon McCarter by 274 votes, were sworn in at the start of the meeting. 

Though Thomas-Tate and Byrne voted on opposite sides of every 4-3 decision Tuesday night, they agreed on one point: The new board needs to move forward in a productive way, and this was a bad start.

They came to that one shared view from substantially different places. Byrne said his efforts to reach a greater consensus in the board officer election process were rebuffed in ways he compared to the recent Mohammadkhani vote. Thomas-Tate said the continued division was a sign of the recent “dirty campaigning” she said some board members took part in. She left them unnamed. 

After a 4-3 vote, Danielle Kincaid, second from left, is the new president of the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Board officer election process divisive, complex compared to previous year 

After Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller swore in Thomas-Tate and Brunner, the two took seats to take part in the nomination of officers. Last year, Denise Fredrick received unanimous support to serve as president in her final year on the school board. This year was quite different. Here’s who nominated who: 

  • Scott Crise nominated Danielle Kincaid.
  • Kelly Byrne nominated Shurita Thomas-Tate, who declined, later saying she considered the gesture to be “insincere.” 
  • Maryam Mohammadkhani nominated Judy Brunner, who declined the nomination as well. 
  • Kelly Byrne nominated Scott Crise, who declined.
  • Kelly Byrne nominated Steve Makoski. 

And then there was a debate about how to elect one of the two board members who didn’t decline the nomination. Superintendent Grenita Lathan, presiding over the board briefly during the reorganization portion, said the board voted based on the order by which the nomination was received, meaning Kincaid was up first. Byrne said that didn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order, which often serve as a guide for how school board meetings are conducted. Lathan said Byrne had brought this up to her prior to the meeting, leading her to ask Penney Rector, an attorney and for SPS human resources chief, to attend the meeting. 

Robert’s Rules state: “When more than one person has been nominated and the election is by voice vote, the chair takes the vote on the candidates in the order in which they were nominated. Members must remember to vote yes for the candidate that they want and vote no for the other candidates. The first candidate to receive a majority vote wins.” 

The Rules of Order note that when more than one candidate is nominated, a voice vote can present a problem, because the first person nominated is likely to be elected unless there is an agreed-upon motion to come to a unanimous consensus. 

Byrne said the board should vote on both candidates at the same time. Rector said the board had the authority to make a decision on how the election should take place. Eventually, Byrne motioned to hold a vote that adhered to Robert’s Rules. He and three others — Crise, Mohammadkhani and Makoski — voted to do so. 

Kincaid received votes from herself and three others — Brunner, Crise and Thomas-Tate. Makoski received votes from himself, Byrne and Mohammadkhani. 

“So Danielle Kincaid is the new president of the board of education,” Lathan said, leading many in attendance to applaud. 

For vice president, Thomas-Tate nominated Crise and Byrne nominated Makoski. The votes fell the same way as they did for president, and Crise kept his chair. There is some recent precedent when it came to that split vote. Last year, Mohammadkhani became VP on a 5-2 vote, with Kincaid and Thomas-Tate voting against her and in favor of Kincaid.

Springfield Public School Board of Education member Kelly Byrne, pictured at the February meeting when Maryam Mohammadkhani was removed as vice president, said Tuesday’s board officer vote was more of the same. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Board members remark on recent turbulence, dirtiness at end of night; Kincaid says it’s time to turn over new leaf

At the end of the night, Byrne said he had tried to present several options to “achieve more unity by seeking a vote greater than 4-3,” and said each was shot down. 

“We’re finishing quite a turbulent year that culminated with an election that took on a very partisan form and finished with only half a percentage point difference between what ultimately looked like two competing sides separated by really just a razor-thin margin,” he said. “Tonight’s reorganization meeting was an opportunity to work together as a board that appears to be very split on the heels of a contentious and very close election that represents a divided electorate. I’m disappointed that there was not an attempt to achieve consensus to do this.”

He later added: “The stunt that Ms. Kincaid pulled to remove the sitting vice president makes more sense to me now, as I’ve seen the rest of the story play out and how she has emerged as the only willing member to serve as president and has successfully elevated herself to that position and did so without board discussion or any attempt to seek consensus that we were shopping at every opportunity,” he said. “I hope that stunt from a few weeks ago is no indication of how this board will be led as we enter into a new year. I hope that we can continue to engage in dialogue with one another and work to find areas where we can come together for the best possible outcomes of the students and employees of SPS. Tonight was certainly not a great start.” 

Thomas-Tate said she had declined Byrne’s effort to nominate her in part because she needed time to recover and refocus from a “very brutal campaign and election period where I was attacked by members of our own board” — and in part because she didn’t buy it. 

“I found the nomination to be insincere and I respectfully declined because I would like to make sure that my mind and my heart and my spirit are prepared to refocus and to recuperate and work collectively with this board that needs to move forward in a productive way,” she said. “I agree. Tonight was not productive, but I think that this is a signal, or sign, of the results of the very dirty campaigning that was done in this past election, which was really disgusting.” 

After letting her fellow board members speak, Kincaid kept her initial remarks as president brief. 

“Thank you for allowing me to serve as your president even though it wasn’t a 7-0 vote, which is fine,” she said. “I hope this is an opportunity to not dwell on the past. I hope this is an opportunity to turn a new leaf, so this board can work together. I truly look forward to working with every single board member and be a collective board and, like I said, turn a new leaf.”

And then she ended, she said, “on a more positive note,” thanking those who attended the Jarrett Middle School ribbon-cutting and voters who supported Proposition S. And then she handed out copies of the Readiness for Kindergarten study to board members who didn’t attend the Mayor’s Commission for Children event on the morning of the board meeting.

After the meeting, Kincaid tweeted, “I’m honored to serve our school district and our community.”

Superintendent Grenita Lathan presents outgoing School Board President Denise Fredrick with a parting gift to remind her of what she has accomplished since joining the board in 2011. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Fredrick, in closing remarks, says public schools are at ‘precarious point’ and need support

For about the first 30 minutes of the Tuesday meeting, Denise Fredrick was still president of the school board. After 12 years on the board, she announced last year she would not seek re-election. Lathan and SPS administrators presented Fredrick, a retired teacher and administrator, with a framed set of photos from two schools dear to her — Hillcrest High School, her alma mater, and the former Fairview Elementary, which will soon be a STEM magnet school. 

After receiving the photo, Fredrick reached for a tissue and then took her seat at the center of the board table to give her final remarks. She thanked her husband Gail Fredrick, family, friends and former students. She noted that one of her former biology students now serves as her family practitioner, and another her eye doctor. Others became researchers, professors, attorneys or teachers. She noted numerous honors she has seen students earn at the outset of board meetings, as well as 12 years presiding over high school graduations, in reaching a conclusion.

“All of that is evidence that Springfield Public Schools are not failing,” she said, and continued into a set of prepared remarks on the district she has served as both an employee and board member. She continued: 

“At the same time, our schools, like schools everywhere, are challenged and have challenges. When I attended Hillcrest High School in the ’70s, it was a simpler time. Families were strong. Institutions such as churches, business groups and parent groups were vibrant. Our communities rallied around our schools for academic achievement and sports accomplishments. Teachers taught and principals administered with broad support from parents and civic leaders. And perhaps most importantly, discussions about schools, students and education policies were done with care, concern and civility. We worked together for the goal of giving our children the very best education possible. 

“Now the environment is different. Our institutions, our churches, our business groups, our parents, our organizations face declining membership and influence. Other voices — political groups, and special interest groups — dominate the debate on education interests and issues. Students in an increasingly fractured society come from challenging life environments. Our teachers face new issues about student well-being, school security, what should and shouldn’t be taught, and what we should and should not stand for as a society. Parents concerned about their children’s safety, future and stability are confused by all the outside voices and look to private schools or teaching their children at home. In short, we are at a precarious point for public schools everywhere. 

“So as I step away from a lifetime in and around the classroom, and more than a decade on this school board, I offer these thoughts. Our schools make Springfield a desirable place to live. I hear this every day. Our recent, very successful Yes on S bond election demonstrates that our community supports our schools. And as a school board, we must be supportive of our schools, our superintendent, our district leadership, our building administrators (and) our teachers and staff who work to inspire and educate our most precious resource, Springfield’s young people. Our staff (members) are the experts of what they do. They have the knowledge, the experience and the skills to do the work and deserve our trust and support.

“Moving forward, it is the board’s responsibility to focus on students — what is best for students and families — and work together to emphasize what unites us rather than what divides us. So thank you to the Springfield community for allowing me to serve your children.”

She left the meeting well before the current board members began the process of working together, or not.

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