After swearing in and signing paperwork Tuesday night as one of two new Springfield Public Schools board members, Steve Makoski said, “Let’s get to work,” before heading to sit down to join the seven-member board.
Soon after, Makoski and fellow newcomer Kelly Byrne briefly sat next to one of their most vocal supporters, board member Maryam Mohammadkhani. The seating chart reshuffled after the election of a new SPS board president. Denise Fredrick, who served as vice president under departed president Alina Lehnert, was the sole nominee for the top role and was unanimously elected to the position.
In his first act as a board member, Byrne nominated Mohammadkhani for the vice presidency. Makoski seconded it. But it would not be a unanimous decision. Board member Shurita Thomas-Tate nominated Danielle Kincaid for the role, which Kincaid seconded. Five members — Steve Crise, Fredrick, Byrne, Makoski and Mohammadkhani — voted for Mohammadkhani, while Kincaid and Thomas-Tate voted for Kincaid.
Denise Fredrick, who was elected unanimously as president of the school board, is a science education consultant and retired former science teacher and administrator in the Springfield Public Schools. She was first elected to the board in 2011 and her current term expires in 2023. She previously served as both president and vice president of the board. Fredrick earned her doctoral degree at Saint Louis University in Educational Leadership and completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees in secondary education at Missouri State University.
Dr. Maryam Mohammadkhani, who was elected vice president on a 5-2 vote, is a retired pathologist who was first elected to the board in 2021. Her first term expires in 2024. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from University of California Irvine, and her Medical Doctoral degree from University of Southern California School of Medicine. She trained and practiced in the Harvard medical system in Boston before joining Cox Health in 2001.
In conservative talk radio appearances and on her Facebook page, Mohammadkhani stumped for Byrne and Makoski over the other three candidates for two open board seats, including the seat that until Tuesday belonged to two-term board member Charles Taylor.
Taylor, in his parting remarks, asked the new board members to put the vitriol of the campaign season behind them, while congratulating Byrne and Makoski on their wins.
Before the new board got to work, the board members who served with Taylor and Lehnert thanked them for their service, and SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan gave each a framed image thanking them for serving the 25,000-student district.
Mohammadkhani, who in support of Byrne and Makoski shared a picture of Taylor with a giant X across his face on her Facebook page, thanked Taylor for taking the time to listen to her, for helping her being the best she can be and for encouraging her to come prepared. She also gave him a book, “Wealth, Poverty, and Politics” by Thomas Sowell, a libertarian-leaning economist. She gave a box of sweets to Lehnert, and thanked her for cheering on the board, district and kids.
The other sitting board members offered Taylor thanks for wisdom and guidance (Thomas-Tate), for answering questions over coffee (Kincaid) and patience and effort (Crise). To Lehnert, board members praised her grace and kindness (Fredrick), her leadership through the pandemic (Taylor) and her strength, ferocity and ability to find the good in everyone (Thomas-Tate).
Taylor, in a brief nod to the attack ad against him that ran in support of Byrne and Makoski, said he would not “hijack” the meeting to share thoughts with each board member, adding that he reached out personally to his colleagues.
He encouraged the board members to speak up for LGBTQ+ students, saying that every time a legislator goes unchecked when labeling that population as unnatural or unclean, “we renege on our promise to provide a safe and nurturing environment that allows every child to reach their full potential. While the board members will have differences of opinion, the common goal is to serve the community and students, Taylor said, adding to the new board that his “money is on the seven of you.” To teachers and staff of SPS, Taylor said “you are absolutely the best of us.”
Lehnert said it has been “an absolute honor” to serve as a board member for the past six years, and thanked each board member in attendance for making her stronger during her tenure as the president. She then turned to Lathan, whose hiring process she led, and said, “You have what it takes to lead this district.”
A standing room crowd filled the room to celebrate departing members, cheer newcomers and voice their opinions on issues facing the district. The first speaker, Lola Butcher, said that improving academic excellence for all students was “common ground” for every board member, administrator and teacher, but it had been pitted against diversity, inclusion and equity efforts during the election campaign. She said the two interests were not mutually exclusive.
Some speakers emphasized the merits of inclusion and questioned the emphasis on ACT scores, while others advocated for physical texts over Chromebooks for young children in the district.
Then came the work. The new board learned about proposed busing plans, about high school track turf replacement, about proposed contract breach penalties for teachers and other staff, about district business and decisions on the horizon.
For Byrne and Makoski, the study session offered the first glimpse at the next three years of work. The new board’s first full meeting will be held April 26.