Springfield Board of Education
The Springfield Board of Education met for a study session Tuesday, Nov. 14. (Photo by Joe Hadsall)

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Board of Education approved language adding “religion” to the list of identifiers in a non-discrimination clause. That proposed amendment was rejected on a 4-3 vote.

After an hour of heated discussion,  frustration over a returning issue and several amendments during its Nov. 14 meeting, the Springfield Board of Education approved two changes involving the addition of gender identity and sexual orientation to two policies dealing with employee hiring.

The matter was brought back after Board Member Scott Crise said he had researched the issue better, in response to a last-minute letter from Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey. Last month, the board tabled discussion of the policy changes. 

“During the last meeting, due to new information shared with board members four or five minutes before our board meeting, I voted to table the policies, so all board members had time to thoroughly assess the situation,” Crise said. “I needed that time.”

Policy changes add language to anti-discrimination policies for employees

The two policies deal with matching civil rights regulations required for participation in the USDA free and reduced-price lunch program. They affect hiring and employment of workers, and do not affect curriculum or other classroom programs for students. 

Both policy changes featured revisions that added the parenthetical phrase “(including gender identity and sexual orientation)” after “sex” in a paragraph prohibiting discrimination. 

Both passed the board with 4-3 votes split in a manner similar to previous votes in September and October: Board President Danielle Kincaid and members Judy Brunner, Scott Crise and Shurita Thomas-Tate voted in favor of both policies, and members Kelly Byrne, Steve Makoski and Maryam Mohammadkhani voted in opposition. 

  • Board Policy AC was approved without any changes. The policy affects the district’s hiring practices and prohibits discrimination. 
  • Board Policy EF was approved with one amendment: to change “their” to “his or her” in language in the policy. The policy deals with the district’s food service management. 

Returning issue for board since September

The policy changes have been on the agendas of the last four board meetings. 

On Sept. 12, the board reviewed the changes without taking a vote. One of the main focuses of that meeting was an exploration of a long-term technology plan requested by Mohammadkhani. 

Study session meetings are usually intended for the board to do a deep dive into bigger issues. While board members discussed a change to an ethics policy (labeled “BBF,” and eventually approved during a subsequent meeting), they did not discuss the proposed changes to AC or EF.  

On Sept. 26, Byrne, Makoski and Mohammadkhani noted the language changes and subsequently opposed them. The changes failed with 3-3 votes, with Byrne, Makoski and Mohammadkhani voting against them and Brunner, Crise and Thomas-Tate supporting them. Kincaid was absent from that meeting. 

At the time, those in favor said the changes, recommended by the Missouri School Boards Association, needed to be in place, or about $7 million in USDA funding could be lost. The three opponents of the changes said they were skeptical they would actually lose funding from the USDA, and felt that adding the language would be a selective redundancy to board policies. 

On Oct. 24, Kincaid brought the matter back on the agenda, saying that had there been any indication of controversy, she would have postponed the discussion until she could be present.

After about 45 minutes of discussion, the board tabled the two policies indefinitely with a 4-3 vote, with Crise joining Byrne, Makoski and Mohammadkhani in support of putting off the policy vote to a later date, with Brunner, Kincaid and Thomas-Tate opposed. 

That meeting’s discussion included a 10-minute recess where board members could read Bailey’s last-minute letter to the district. Bailey, a Republican, also posted the letter to his X.com page, warning the district to avoid passing a policy he argued that the Biden administration passed illegally.

Crise: ‘I needed that time’

Crise said Tuesday that he approved of tabling the matter in October so that he could do some research, and that he had enough research to request pulling it off the table. 

Doing so required a separate vote, which was approved with a 4-3 vote in the same split. 

Crise said he spoke with district officials, MSBA officials and other school districts across the state, and that information led him to decide the matter was about compliance with a USDA regulation. 

“Today, the district is out of compliance,” Crise said. “Regardless of anyone’s personal belief, I don’t think any of us here want any student to be denied a free, reduced-price lunch. I will vote to adopt this policy to put the district into compliance, because that is our fiduciary responsibility.” 

Makoski and Byrne expressed frustration with the issue’s return. Byrne challenged Crise and Kincaid in his comments over the notion that the three opponents were risking federal funds to play politics.

“I just don’t believe it’s intellectually honest to say that we are risking funds,” Byrne said. “Why are we still talking about that? It only serves to divide the community and cause dissension. Seriously, knock it off, all right? Let’s be done with that.”

Byrne also made two motions to amend both policies. An amendment to Policy AC that would have added a long list of genders into the policy was rejected, but an amendment to change “their” to “his or her” in Policy EF was approved.

A motion to add the word “religion” in the same list on EF also was rejected. 

Bailey’s letter about a dismissed case

The board also reckoned with Bailey’s letter, which referenced the lawsuit brought by the Republican attorneys general. It was dismissed on March 29, almost seven months before Bailey sent his last-minute letter to the Springfield board.

U.S. District Judge Travis McDonough ruled that the suit did not violate religious freedom as the lawsuit suggested, and was simply about whether states should be allowed to ignore federal law. Thomas-Tate referenced the dismissal in discussion, and Kincaid read part of McDonough’s findings.

Other members stick with previous opinions

Crise’s vote was the only one that changed over the course of the previous meeting, based on his research. Other members echoed points they made during the previous meeting. 

Brunner and Kincaid said that their votes were based on following the USDA’s policy. 

“You comply with the federal government. I think that’s how we do business,” Brunner said. “We are a public entity, and whether or not you think $7 million is at risk … an audit would be very expensive for our district, and would also be time-consuming.”

Byrne and Mohammadkhani reiterated their beliefs that the policy was written badly and represented a coercion of federal influence into local decision making.

Makoski tied his vote to his beliefs that the USDA policy was instituted illegally. He also said that, even though the policy does not affect instruction or curriculum, that exposure to LGBT issues would put children at risk of hurting themselves.

“As adults push this onto our children, I think it’s irresponsible,” Makoski said. “I think about the child that does turn down this path of (sexual orientation and gender identity), that may be a child that will contemplate suicide down the road.”

Reporter’s note, Nov. 14: This report has been edited and updated to include quotes from the meeting and more information.

Joe Hadsall

Joe Hadsall is the education reporter for the Springfield Daily Citizen. Hadsall has more than two decades of experience reporting in the Ozarks with the Joplin Globe, Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine. Contact him at (417) 837-3671 or jhadsall@sgfcitizen.org. More by Joe Hadsall