J. Michael Hasty, founder of Queen City Watchdog, speaks at a news conference at which he alleged that Springfield Public School Board of Education member Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate had committed financial improprieties involving a conflict between her role on the Board of Education and her role on the board of the local nonprofit group that she founded, Ujima. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Springfield Public Schools and board member Shurita Thomas-Tate challenged allegations made Tuesday by the leader of a local watchdog publication, who said Thomas-Tate had violated state ethics codes when voting to approve a $15,000 district contract with a nonprofit she founded. 

J. Michael Hasty, founder of Queen City Watchdog, called a press conference before Tuesday’s school board meeting to share what he categorized as evidence of self-dealing, including a copy of a district contract with Ujima Language and Literacy, a nonprofit organization founded by Thomas-Tate. 

“She is a current member and a co-chair and founder of said board over there at Ujima,” he said. “So she served simultaneously at SPS and Ujima.”

Thomas-Tate currently sits on Ujima’s board of directors but is not an executive.

“I founded Ujima,” Thomas-Tate said. “I am not Ujima.”

Shurita Thomas-Tate plays a word guessing game with a group of children at Ujima’s Family Literacy Night. Ujima provides free monthly literacy and language experiences for children up to 11 years of age. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

SPS, in a statement, said Thomas-Tate did nothing wrong and called Hasty’s allegations “inaccurate” and “unwarranted.”

Thomas-Tate is up for re-election on April 4 and is one of two school board candidates, along with Judy Brunner, who have been recently targeted by the Queen City Watchdog in a series of Facebook posts. Hasty had taken steps to run for the school board, but did not submit the 500 voter signatures needed to get his name on the ballot. At his Feb. 28 press conference, Hasty pointed to Missouri Ethics Commission policy regarding conflict of interest issues for elected officials. 

The policy he referred to states that an elected official cannot influence an agency or political subdivision decision if it results in financial benefit in excess of $500 per transaction or $5,000 annually to themselves, their spouse or their in-custody children. In June, Thomas-Tate joined the rest of the seven-member school board in unanimously approving a two-year, $15,000 agreement with Ujima. The contract shows the money is used to fund family reading night events held at Boyd Elementary School, as well as a summer camp program. The contract was signed by John Mulford, SPS deputy superintendent, and Audrey Duncan, principle officer at Ujima.

In response, Thomas-Tate said in an interview with the Daily Citizen that she had no reason to recuse herself from the vote, because the district funds go to Ujima, and she is not an Ujima officer. She serves on the board of directors (an unpaid position) and volunteers her time at events like the organization’s monthly family literacy nights. 

Thomas-Tate said the contract was unanimously approved by the board, and that the money went to resources for the organization, not to her. 

“I am not getting paid,” Thomas-Tate said. “Those contracts were not to Shurita. They were to Ujima.” 

Shurita Thomas Tate, a member of the Springfield Public Schools’ school board and a candidate for re-election, speaks with Ki Ogunyemi at Ujima’s Family Literacy Night at Turning Point Church on N. National in February. Ogunyemi is holding her 11-month-old daughter Danni Grace. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

She added: “Because I am not Ujima — I’m just a board member for Ujima — I’m not required to recuse myself. I’ve also contacted the Missouri Ethics Commission when I submitted my paperwork to run for office this time. And because I am not Ujima, I’m just a board member — I happened to be the board member who founded it — I was not required to report a conflict of interest.”

Hasty said he submitted evidence to the school district and to the Missouri Ethics Commission. The commission cannot confirm or deny if an inquiry is underway regarding a complaint, but does publish the results of inquiries that have either been dismissed or deemed in need of additional investigation. Thomas-Tate said she had not been contacted by the ethics commission. Hasty said he had worked with legal counsel on his end, but did not name the attorney. 

Stephen Hall, SPS spokesman, released a statement saying that the public has a right to question actions by elected officials and taxpayer-funded public entities. But, Hall wrote, the proper practices were followed by Thomas-Tate and the district in funding Ujima, which SPS considers among its community partners.

“The information presented by the Queen City Watchdog is inaccurate and the concerns expressed are unwarranted,” the statement reads. “The district frequently engages with community partners to help enrich educational experiences for our students. SPS is a proud, long-time partner with Ujima, a local nonprofit managed by its own board of directors. We work together to increase language and literacy skills for all children. Most recently, the district engaged in a two-year memorandum of understanding with Ujima to offer literacy nights at Boyd Elementary and summer camp options over a two-year period. The partnership supports increasing summer learning, early literacy skills, kindergarten readiness and grade-level reading. 

“The $15,000 contract covers expenses related to programming, including learning materials and books, so that children and families may participate free of charge. The contract followed the standard review process and was unanimously approved by the current board of education in June 2022. This contract is publicly available for review, as are all agreements approved by the board. In this circumstance, no member of the board of education received any compensation; rather, SPS covered program expenses as part of our partnership with Ujima. Concerned stakeholders have every right to ask questions regarding actions taken by elected officials or public entities. There is an appropriate and formal process established by the Missouri Ethics Commission. Had Mr. Hasty followed this process or sought information directly from the district, what appears to be a misunderstanding would have been clarified.”

Thomas-Tate is not the only current board member who sits on another board that has a financial arrangement with the school district. Kelly Byrne, in response to questions last year from the Daily Citizen about his life and work experience, touted his time on the Ozarks Regional YMCA Board of Directors. He continues to serve on YMCA’s board. The district this summer entered into a $379,000 agreement with Ozarks Regional YMCA to run the SHINE program, which offers before and after-school care to district students.

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