Illustration by Meg Wagler for the Springfield Daily Citizen.

This article is part of a series by Springfield Daily Citizen’s education reporter, Cory Matteson, comparing the school board candidates’ responses to topical questions.

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?

Kelly Byrne: 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. 

Chad Courtney: No. Public Schools are a societal organization designed to benefit everyone. The district is allotted tax dollars and those dollars do need to be placed efficiently into a budget that maximizes the potential for creation of an outstanding learning environment. Balancing budgets is a necessity and tough decisions come along with a limited monetary supply, but applying standard business principles to educational decisions does not compute.

The purpose and role of the school board is to set policy for the superintendent and her staff to implement and handle on a daily basis. The role of the board is not to micro-manage the daily operations of the district within its many buildings. The sole employee of the board is the superintendent, and it is the responsibility of the superintendent to manage daily operations within the district.

Steve Makoski: There are crossovers between a large organization such as SPS and a large business. SPS employs 3,500 staff members and has operating revenue over $300 million. SPS produces a product, educated graduates, and their success can be measured by Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) such as student achievement. Employee retention, budgets and KPIs are all components of running a business. Where SPS differs from a business are “wrap around” services provided; these activities align more with non-profit organizations. The most granular aspect of board operations are budget and policy review. The board’s overall role is to provide support for Dr. Lathan and advocate for SPS through community leaders and legislators. The board plays a vital role in building community support. 

Charles Taylor: As we have learned in a state that lags behind most others in public education funding, there is no question that SPS is a business, though it is not like every (or any) other business. We do not make widgets, nor do we sell gas. We educate students and our focus must always be on how to assure that we are accountable to the taxpayers for aligning our always limited resources in ways that serve THAT mission, not to turn a profit. For public entities, “not for profit” is a tax status; it is not a business strategy (or at least not a smart one). As a board, we have fiduciary and statutory responsibilities that require us to be attentive to the fiscal health and sustainability of the district and we work every day to do that. We have for several years maintained a healthy fund balance and it’s a metric that the board can and must assess as we move forward. We must enhance our transparency to assure that all district patrons have confidence that their taxes are being invested as frugally as possible in ways that serve our mission, meet all statutory requirements, and enhance the quality of life of our teachers, staff, students and community. 

A board should shape the strategic direction of the district, hire a superintendent, hold her accountable for enacting that vision, shape and approve the budget, and provide counsel and guidance, as appropriate, to the superintendent and her team as they direct the daily operations of the district, and then hold them accountable for district outcomes. A board member should not meddle in daily operations or promote individual “causes.” 

Brandi VanAntwerp: The public school system is not a business. It is a unique entity and its primary goal is to serve all of the children in the district, not turning a profit. The public school system shares many more characteristics with non-profit organizations that still have to balance a budget, supervise staff, comply with federal and state regulations, including grants, all while serving its target constituency, which in the school district’s case are the students. I have experience with all of these aspects, and I have a genuine passion for our youth that I live out every day in my role as executive director of FosterAdopt Connect. School board members govern the school district and provide advocacy for public education. They are responsible for hiring and supervising one employee — the Superintendent; they plan and approve a budget for the district to follow; and ensure the strategic plan is not only set, but is being fulfilled. They should not have a role in day-to-day operations. 

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