Candidate: Kelly Byrne
Occupation: Real estate investor, developer; owner of Say You Can LLC
Education: Graduated from Kickapoo High School; bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State University
Campaign funds raised as of Feb. 22: $34,705
Q: What about your life and work experience lends itself to being a successful member of the school board?
A: I have board experience, as I serve on the Ozarks Regional YMCA Board of Directors. I’m a 13-year businessman of the Springfield community and have spent that time reviewing data and bringing together all the pieces to accomplish a common goal. I review budgets and change orders and understand complex issues in order to make decisions. I’m a substitute teacher, as I have time in my schedule, and donate my pay to Care to Learn. I’m doing it to help fill the shortage of substitute teachers and as a way to better understand our district at the classroom level. The purpose of the board is to provide oversight of the superintendent and to effectively do that one must be able to absorb a large amount of data, process it, ask tough questions, debate honestly with the intent of solving problems, and make decisions. This is exactly what I’ve been doing for 13 years as a real estate investor, developer, and business owner.
Q: If elected, your first full school year as a board member will begin next fall. What measures need to be in place for staff and students to return to school safely, and where will you look for guidance on any future decisions the board will have to make regarding COVID-19 mitigation?
A: At this time, we need no further measures. Our students and teachers are safe. Our students need to be seated in the classroom to succeed academically, emotionally, and physically. Masking should remain optional. We should provide proper N-95 masks for the district’s teachers and other staff that wish to use them, but it should be at their discretion. I can’t project where we will be at a future date, but I will assess data and make decisions based on what is in the best interest of our students’ overall health and academic success.
Q: ACT and MAP assessment average scores have declined in recent years, and in many cases, SPS student scores fall below state averages. Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s Entry Plan released in December listed several steps to address both college testing (improving access to test prep skills for students) and MAP assessments (monthly math collaboratives for teachers and the use of MasteryConnect to analyze students’ areas of need in advance of testing). Is the school district taking steps in the right direction, and what else do you think should be done?
A: We’re in a hole after years of declining ACT and MAP scores, and it will take some time to work back in the right direction. There certainly is no “easy-fix” button, but we can start with a board that understands that all decisions should be made through the filter of academic excellence. I have hopes that Dr. Lathan understands this very serious issue and will work to turn it around. Most of her time so far has been spent assessing the district, so it’s a little too early to critique her performance. I’ve seen some very promising communication from her so far that she is recognizing the issues we face.
We need a new strategic plan. One that focuses on “academic excellence.” Our current strategic plan really makes no mention of academics, performance or curriculum. By refocusing our Mission for SPS on “academic excellence” we can set the standard through which all decisions will be made.
We really need to look at the role of technology in our classrooms and decide if it’s possible that we are leaning on it too early in a child’s education, or too often, or using it to replace what only a teacher can provide, because the downward trend in our performance lines up suspiciously closely with the timing of our big technology push into the classrooms.
We need to look at discipline policy that has changed around the time our scores started falling and what impact that is having on our students’ ability to learn.
We need to assess the value of textbooks in the classroom and the value of written assignments and what that does for the student and for parental engagement.
We need a quality curriculum that isn’t constantly changing so the teachers can be more effective with it.
We’ve had record retirement rates among our teachers, so we need to figure out how to better retain them.
Q: A survey of SPS parents and teachers last year found that a majority of parents believed the district’s current staggered start times for their children’s schools were not meeting their needs. Given that the staggered starts are tied to bus driver staffing issues, what is a path forward that works for SPS and parents?
A: It’s not a given that the staggered starts are tied to bus driver staffing issues. What we do know is starting school for many of our students at 9:30 isn’t working. It needs to be changed and Dr. Lathan, I believe, has recognized this very quickly. The district has raised bus driver pay, and any shortages seem to be headed in the direction of being filled. We must value reasonable starting times when considering transportation in the future, and this may just be an issue of priority within the budget.
Q: Teacher staffing is an issue of nationwide concern, at a time when many are retiring earlier in their careers or leaving the profession altogether. What would you do on the school board to encourage teachers to join the SPS system and then to stay there?
A: As a member of the board I would prioritize addressing discipline policies that have made teaching more challenging and less enjoyable. I would make sure we prioritize our teachers within the budget to be sure that teachers’ wages are competitive and pace inflation. I would work for a more transparent district that seeks to include the teachers’ voices throughout the process of improving “academic excellence.” Outside of parents, teachers are the most important aspect in a child’s education and that makes them the number one resource of the district.
Q: Does the Springfield Public School District need to be run more like a business — why or why not? What role should Board members play in day-to-day operations?
A: Like it or not, the district does operate like a business. It’s one of the largest employers in Springfield and controls a $300 million budget. The role of a board member is oversight of the superintendent and that budget, and the skills and experience necessary to successfully do that are more likely to come from the business world than from a college classroom. Our teachers know how to teach and most of our administrators have a ton of classroom experience. Having a few educators on the board is good for a balanced perspective, but a board will not be successful without the presence of people with experience in business because its primary function involves oversight of the superintendent, contract negotiations, and budgeting. A good manager of a business knows what he/she doesn’t know and trusts their team to execute their roles, then pulls together all the pieces for a common goal. In business, that common goal may be to make a widget, but for SPS that common goal should be “academic achievement for ALL students.” Obviously, the classroom is not a business, but for our classrooms to be successful, the district must be managed effectively as a business would be.
Q: If you have school-age children, are they enrolled in the SPS system or are they enrolled in private schools, and why?
A: I do have kids in the district, a fourth-grader and a first-grader. I’m the only candidate who can say he both graduated from the district and has kids enrolled in the district. We are fortunate enough to have our kids in one of the best performing elementary schools in SPS, and overall our direct experiences have been mostly positive. However, SPS is the largest district in the state, and there is a lot of variance from school to school. Being totally and blatantly honest, there are schools in this district that I would pull my kids from and enroll in private school, but the majority of parents and guardians don’t have that option, and they shouldn’t have to. Our taxes go to SPS, and the district spends a lot more money per student than it costs for a private school tuition. We should expect better from our schools.