To read this story, please sign in with your email address and password.
You’ve read all your free stories this month. Subscribe now and unlock unlimited access to our stories, exclusive subscriber content, additional newsletters, invitations to special events, and more.Sign in Subscribe
Don’t have an account yet? Register here.
Three Springfield Board of Education members opposed to adding mentions of gender identity and sexual orientation into board policy said they were willing to gamble federal funding for free and reduced lunches on their decision.
The board considered three policy revisions Sept. 26 during its regular meeting. Two of the policies, one dealing with school nutrition programs and the other dealing with food service workers, featured revisions that added the parenthetical phrase “(including gender identity and sexual orientation)” after “sex” in a paragraph prohibiting discrimination.
Both of those changes failed with 3-3 votes, with board members Kelly Byrne, Steve Makoski and Maryam Mohammadkhani voting against them, while members Scott Crise, Shurita Thomas-Tate and Judy Brunner supported the change. Board President Danielle Kincaid was absent for the meeting.
A familiar issue
Tuesday’s votes differed from a related vote in June, where a motion to craft a resolution of support for LGBTQ students and staff members died for failure to get a second. That resolution would have been non-binding.
The policies at issue Tuesday, however, dealt with matching USDA civil rights regulations required for participation in the free and reduced-price lunch program.
According to documentation provided to board members, the Missouri School Boards Association recommended the change because it aligns with recent changes made at the federal level. The guidelines reflect language required to be displayed on posters and other materials shared with community members or posted for school district employees.
The MSBA is a private nonprofit organization that bolsters school board members with training, legal assistance and policy support. It is not a state-run agency and carries no law-binding authority. Crise, the SPS board’s vice president, is a member of the MSBA Board of Directors.
During the meeting, Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the district receives more than $7 million from the federal government through Title 1 grants, used to ensure adequate nutrition for students in need.
Board member discussion
Supporters of the changes said they approved of how the recommended change placed federal law in an easy-to-find, relevant place. Making the change also keeps the district in compliance with federal law.
The central argument of the three opposed board members centered around the language being a selective redundancy to board policy. They also noted that the proposed policy change did not have any mention of “religion,” something also required in anti-discrimination policies.
Crise said the USDA can be unforgiving about language in policies when federal funding is concerned, and that not doing so could be costly.
“The USDA is very strict, and we can risk being audited,” Crise said. “What will happen is that we’ll end up losing taxpayer dollars for something we can’t win.”
Byrne downplayed the risk of a sudden action.
“The way I envision this happening is they say you didn’t change your policy, and they would send a nasty letter, then we would bring it up at the next meeting and change our policy,” Byrne said. “I don’t think we’re at risk of spending substantial amounts of taxpayer dollars to fight something.”
Brunner said while she has heard from many constituents on both sides of LGBTQ issues, none of them believed it was worth risking the loss of money for meeting nutrition needs.
“We are a local school board. We follow the guidelines we have been given,” Brunner said. “I just haven’t talked to anybody, nor do I believe, that it would be appropriate to put any of our Title 1 funding at risk over this.”
Mohammadkhani said she was skeptical such a guideline change would be enforced, but that making the change removed local control.
“I don’t think that the federal government is going to cut our money off for free and reduced lunch,” Mohammadkhani said. “It boils down to how we were elected to be in these seats to make the decisions for our … school board. I’m a huge advocate and proponent of our strength in public education in the state of Missouri coming from locally elected school boards.”
Thomas-Tate said following the law is not a sign of giving up local control, and that including legal language in a board policy is helpful for those dealing with its effects.
“Sometimes the law can be difficult to interpret, which is why MSBA provides this language in updated policies,” Thomas-Tate said. “If you were to click on some of those laws and the other lawsuits that these changes are based on, they are quite dense … Instead what we’ve done is put those requirements into our policies so that it’s easy to read, and spelled out.”
After 11 months of consideration, the Springfield Board of Education decided not to issue a statement in support of LGBTQ students and staff members.
Makoski said he was in favor of letting the word “sex” be inclusive of both gender identity and sexual orientation without spelling those out in policy.
“I don’t think the federal government is going to come to take $7 million from us,” Makoski said. “I think that would be a first in the nation for that to happen, and there would certainly be quite a ruckus following that.”
While both policy changes failed, the board policies discussed — labeled as Policy AC and Policy EF — remain in effect, and are available for reading on the district’s website. Policy AC in its first paragraph clearly spells out that discrimination against anyone “on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, ancestry, disability, age, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law” is prohibited.
Ethics policy adjusted successfully
A third policy, Policy BBF, regarding the ethics of school board members, was successfully changed with a 6-0 vote. Board members split a provision to follow a chain of command, and direct personnel complaints to the superintendent, into two separate provisions, then removed a provision that requires board members to take no private actions that compromise the board.
The list of provisions were added by board members, after discussing a series of changes recommended by the MSBA during the board’s Sept. 12 meeting. Other additions to the policy from board members, outside of MSBA recommendations, include:
- Exercising leadership in vision, planning, policy making, evaluation and advocacy.
- Making decisions based on available facts and independent judgment, not influence from individuals or special interest groups.
- Maintaining an open environment for board members to share concerns or ideas, but accept the will of the majority after a vote.
- Work together in a spirit of harmony, respect and cooperation despite differences of opinion.
- Study educational issues and regularly assess the educational system.
- Encourage ongoing communication between board members and stakeholders.
The affirmative vote came after two 3-3 splits dealing with the provision about following the chain of command. Board members wrangled with the necessity of the phrase, when they all accept that the only person they communicate with is Lathan, the superintendent.
After those two votes, Mohammadkhani made a motion to approve the policy without any of the board’s added provisions, but then rescinded that motion after board members expressed a consensus to have their own specifically written provisions in its policy.
Reporter’s note, Oct. 3, 2023: This report has been edited to correct details about the ethics policy discussion.