Rumors circulated last week that an effort was underway to dismantle the equity and diversity office within Springfield Public Schools. Some school board members say “that is simply not true.”

But a public response was already in the works. On Tuesday night, all nine people who signed up to speak at the SPS board’s study session spoke in favor of keeping it in place. 

The stated mission of Springfield Public Schools’ Office of Equity and Diversity is to provide a welcoming, accessible and affirming learning and work environment for underrepresented and under-resourced students, staff and families across the district.

The speakers Tuesday night had been called to action in response to a post circulating on Facebook alleging that the newest board members were looking to dismantle the office.

School Board Members Steve Makoski to the left and Scott Crise to the right. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Steve Makoski, one of the two most recently elected board members, took to Facebook to say the allegation was false and hearsay, while also adding that determining whether any department in the district warrants dissolution is one of many school board responsibilities. Scott Crise, who was elected to the board in 2021, took time during the meeting to have SPS staff confirm that the topic was never discussed in any budget meetings conducted in the run-up to Tuesday’s public study session. 

But board member Shurita Thomas-Tate said just because it wasn’t discussed Tuesday night or in smaller sessions doesn’t mean that some board members aren’t considering it. 

Equity training for SPS staff has paused in the wake of a lawsuit filed by two employees and another filed by Missouri Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidate Eric Schmitt, who sued the district last year in search of “records relating to critical race theory and anti-racist teaching.”

Citizens speak in support of Office of Equity and Diversity on Tuesday

On Tuesday, the public comments included messages from speakers who pointed to the successes of the district’s Office of Equity and Diversity, including personal ones. 

“An unfortunate part of my story is that when my kids were still a part of this district, you would not have seen me here advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools,” said Denelle Pantleo, an SPS special education paraprofessional and parent of two SPS graduates. “I was a different person with a smaller worldview, and ignorant of the impact that I could have had. I had not yet experienced my own child coming out as non-binary transgender. I had not yet been educated in diversity and the importance of inclusion and representation. Nor had I yet begun listening to people who had very different life experiences from mine.”

Pantleo said that a training session led by the Office of Equity and Diversity was one of several catalysts that helped her grow more empathetic. 

“Seeing those other perspectives and having those sometimes uncomfortable conversations changed the entire trajectory of my life,” she said. “Without those voices, those life lessons, I would not be studying now to earn my special education degree, and hopefully teaching for Springfield Public Schools. My child would not have felt safe being themselves around me. And I would not have this desire to stand up for the educational rights of all the students in our district.”

Kyler Sherman-Wilkins said that the office’s staff had not only worked to help disadvantaged students and families feel affirmed, supportive and safe, but they had also played a role in developing programs like SPS University and the Grow Your Own teacher development effort. 

“So I think that we should not be entertaining thoughts to undermine this important office,” he said. 

Springfield NAACP President Kai Sutton said that the office’s staff played a vital role in helping affected students cope with their trauma after two Kickapoo High School students tagged a bathroom wall with racist graffiti this spring. Sutton said her family moved to Springfield in an effort to seek a better future for her children, and to enroll in a district where the staff was willing to address issues of racism when they arise, rather than shrink from them. She gave an example that her own daughter experienced since moving here.  

“She was told by her peers that she wasn’t smart enough to read, but was fast enough to run because of her culture and its history of having to run,” Sutton said. “She was teased because of her learning disabilities and boxed in because of her race. It was then I encountered concerned staff who wanted to help but didn’t know how.” 

In an interview before the meeting, Sutton said that the Office of Equity and Diversity is a community asset, one where everyone at the table, regardless of race or experience, has a voice. 

“It’s definitely a plus, working with them,” she said. 

Cheryl Clay speaks in front of the Springfield School Board on June 7th, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Rumors swirled about the office’s future on Facebook

Rumors about the office’s future went public last week when former NAACP president Cheryl Clay shared a post on Facebook that she had copied and pasted from another person. That person, she said, had deleted the original post after it began to draw attention. Clay left hers up. 

“I’ll fan the flames a little bit,” Clay said on Thursday. On Tuesday, she was one of the nine citizens who spoke in support of the office. 

The post she shared noted that SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who has made equity across the district one of five key priorities, as well as Chief Equity and Diversity Officer Yvania Garcia-Pusateri, are being targeted by the bloc. The post stated that the board members “mistakenly conflate the issue of Critical Race Theory with any and all activities of the Office, thus, making it a target to be destroyed.” 

In Makoski’s response on his public campaign Facebook account, he wrote that the effort was “simply not true” while adding that “dissolving any department” at the district “is one of many responsibilities school boards exercise.” He also said he had not formed an opinion of Garcia-Pusateri during his one brief meeting with her since joining the board this spring, and said he has “the greatest respect” for Lathan, who has “performed superbly!” 

Makoski and Kelly Byrne, the two newly elected board members, campaigned on platforms of academic excellence for all students and were endorsed by Truth in Politics, a group that paid for TV ads that accused one of their opponents, Charles Taylor, of hijacking board meetings to push critical race theory. 

Fate of DEI department not discussed during meetings leading up to Tuesday session

SPS School Board Member Scott Cruise (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Toward the end of Tuesday’s four-hour meeting, Crise noted that board members had gathered in small groups with SPS staff to go through details of the district’s budget, which will be voted on later this month. 

“Was dissolving or dismantling the DEI department discussed during any of these meetings?” he asked Tuesday night. 

John Mulford, deputy superintendent of operations, said no, and pointed out that the proposed budget called for an $80,000 increase in funding for the office. 

“While it was not something that was discussed in our budget meetings, just because you don’t discuss it directly doesn’t mean that it’s not a part of an agenda,” Thomas-Tate said later on. “And so I’m not saying that it is or is not, I’m just saying that it doesn’t require that we had a discussion in our budget meetings for it to be something that is an underlying thing that may be coming through in some of the comments that are made even in our own meetings.

“There are these perspectives that we have out there and those perspectives include things like what we call a deficit position versus a different position. Those deficit positions come out in the way that we talk about groups and people and individuals. And it makes it clear how one feels about different groups of students, including our underrepresented and under-resourced students. So when one has — including teachers — these deficit perspectives about students, it shows up in your language, it shows up in your teaching, which is why DEI is necessary. Even those with good hearts and good intentions don’t understand how their language impacts the way that they interact with others. And so it’s important that we do continue to support those efforts if we want to make those differences.”

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