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Kelly Byrne and Steve Makoski are set to join the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education. Byrne led all five candidates with 10,119 votes, while Makoski netted 9,549, according to unofficial Greene County Clerk’s Office election results.

Incumbent Charles Taylor, a two-term member of the school board, finished third with 8,432. The election results are unofficial and will be certified next week. The next two members of the school board will be sworn in on April 12.

Byrne and Makoski will join Scott Crise, Denise Fredrick, Danielle Kincaid, Maryam Mohammadkhani and Shurita Thomas-Tate on the seven-member Springfield Public Schools board, which oversees Missouri’s largest school district.

Byrne and Makoski led a group of five candidates vying for two open seats.

Kelly Byrne (left) and Steve Makoski. (Photos: submitted)

Byrne and Makoski's campaign

Byrne, a real estate investor and developer, also ran in 2021, finishing fourth in a year voters chose three new school board members. The leading vote-getter in 2022 campaigned on a platform that focused on a return to “academic excellence,” citing declining ACT and MAP scores as a sign that new perspectives were needed on the school board in an effort to improve student achievement.

In response to questions from the Daily Citizen, Byrne touted his entrepreneurial experience as an asset in addressing student achievement and other issues facing the district, including teacher recruitment and retention, discipline policy and curriculum development. In response to a question about whether the district should run more like a business, Byrne wrote:

“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.”

Efforts to interview Byrne and Makoski Tuesday night were unsuccessful.

Makoski, the director of compliance at Rapid Roberts, has said his goal-oriented approach will serve him and the school board well if he was elected. In a response to a Daily Citizen question about how his experience would qualify him, Makoski wrote:

“As for measuring life outcomes, I’ve traveled from poverty to foster care to 20 years of naval service, gaining world and global experience and finding my way to Springfield, Missouri, to raise a family in faith and become a businessman for the last 25 years.”

Like Byrne, Makoski has cited declining academic performance as a motivator for entering the school board race. In response to a Daily Citizen question asking what should be done to address declining test scores, Makoski said that Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s Entry Plan presented steps in the right direction, while adding that results would have to be shown.

“Academic achievement within our district has been in a downward spiral for the last 10 years!” he wrote. “When does this stop? Like many plans, we need to consider other mitigating factors that impede our progress in achieving successful outcomes. Factors such as discipline, violence in the classrooms, drugs in our schools, poverty, busing, outside influences such as politics entering our classrooms, bringing back respect for our teachers, and balancing textbooks with technology.”

Voter turnout for Tuesday’s municipal elections

(Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

According to the preliminary Greene County Clerk’s Office totals, 38,124 total votes were cast in the Springfield school board race, with each voter being allowed to vote for up to two candidates.

Final voter turnout totals were unavailable late Tuesday, but the Clerk’s Office reported that about 11.5 percent of registered voters had cast ballots across the county as of about 5 p.m. on election day. County residents cast ballots for Tuesday’s municipal elections, which along with the SPS board race included school board races in smaller districts like Willard, Fair Grove and Strafford. Last year’s April elections, in which three SPS board seats were up for grabs, inspired about 13.3 percent of the county’s registered voters to cast ballots.

What's next for new school board members?

School board members are not paid for their service, and they serve three-year terms during which they vote on key decisions about contracts, budgets, tax levies, district property and student welfare. The board also decides who to employ as the district’s superintendent, and the current board recently voted to extend the contract of Lathan through 2025. Lathan was hired last year to replace the retiring John Jungmann.

The newly elected board members will work with Lathan and her administration at a pivotal time to be school district decision-makers. SPS is graduating more students than ever, and building, rebuilding or expanding a number of facilities. The district is also facing major challenges, many of which have been exacerbated by unprecedented changes to the learning environment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As Lathan stated in her December 2020 entry plan, achievement gaps exist at elementary, middle and high school levels and in some cases have widened during a period in which students have spent portions of the school year learning virtually whether they signed up for it or not. MAP assessment scores remain below state standards in many categories. And teacher development and retention — along with staffing issues as a whole — are critical areas to address. In the coming months, the board will make decisions on the next fiscal year budget, busing plans for the upcoming school year and more.

Courtney says partisan lines were drawn

Byrne and Makoski, who also raised the most campaign funding in the election cycle, both have cited their experience as businessmen as making them good fits for the board at a time when big-picture decisions must be made. In a nonpartisan race, the two received funding and endorsements from several conservative groups, including Truth in Politics, which paid for a campaign ad that asked voters to support the two while accusing Taylor of hijacking meetings to “push critical race theories over and over again.”

Makoski and Byrne have said that CRT has been present in teacher training, pointing to SPS staff equity training material referenced in Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s lawsuit against Springfield Public Schools. Both also have said they believe critical race theory has no place in Springfield schools.

Chad Courtney. (Photo by Cory Matteson)

Taylor and VanAntwerp, who finished fourth with 8,121 votes, received endorsements from both local teachers' unions as well as the Greene County Democrats. Attorney Chad Courtney, who finished fifth with 1,864 votes, said that he got caught in the middle of a nonpartisan race in which voters clearly drew partisan lines.

“There's been more money raised in this race than, from what I understand, any other school board race in the history of Springfield, and it was polarized,” Courtney said Tuesday night. “And I think it galvanized along partisanship lines. And I was stuck in the middle. I wasn't conservative enough for some people. And I wasn't liberal enough for other people.”

Voters sided with candidates who drew conservative interest

Four Springfield area business leaders are linked to Truth in Politics through a State of Missouri Secretary of State annual registration report filed last Aug. 5. Curtis Jared is listed as director and president of the nonprofit. Along with George Husted, a former Axiom Strategies compliance associate and Missouri State University alum who is listed as a director, treasurer and secretary, three local businessmen are listed as directors — Lee Fraley, Royce Reding and Sam Clifton. Fraley owns Fraley Masonry. Reding worked on political campaigns for U.S. Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, before co-founding Nevont, an employee benefits brokerage. Clifton owns Millstone Custom Homes.

On Monday, Reding discussed Truth in Politics on the Nick Reed podcast, saying that the group was formed several years ago to address a conservative lack of attention on community level, non-partisan races.

Screenshot from a TV ad by Truth in Politics.

“There was a group of business leaders that came together, created a group called Truth in Politics, and we got engaged in last year’s city council (and) school board race,” Reding said on the podcast. “Really, I think the drive for us is — we have no agenda other than to inform the community of statements, policy positions and, frankly, goals of elected leaders and those running for office.”

Without naming the group, Reed and Reding criticized Vote417 for calling for the ad to be pulled from the air while advocating for increased participation in democracy. They did not address that Byrne publicly asked for the ad to be removed and that Makoski publicly distanced himself from it.

After the ad initially aired, Taylor, a professor of communication and director of the master’s in communication program at Drury University, denied the allegations contained in it.

“I may do many things, but hijacking meetings is rarely one of them,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate sign of the times, I think. I do think that Springfield is better than this level of discourse. Beyond being factually untrue, it’s also unhelpful. Anonymous posting is troubling in and of itself. We will see on April 5 whether this kind of discourse is convincing to the public. I am hopeful that it will not be.”

Did the attack ad alter Taylor’s results?

Asked Tuesday night if the ad played a role in his defeat, Taylor said more empirical evidence would be needed to prove its effect on the race.

He offered congratulations to the two winners – “They put themselves into the fray, and the voters have spoken.” Asked if he had any advice for the future board members, Taylor said that he learned soon after joining in 2016 that he had to check his easy assumptions about the school district at the door.

“There are a lot of people who've invested a lot of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears in doing what's best for our kids,” Taylor said. “Certainly (the new board members) can bring guidance, but they can also learn from those folks.”

While he will no longer serve the district as a member of the school board, Taylor said he looks to find a way to continue to serve the school district.

“I am no less a dedicated supporter of SPS now than I was yesterday,” Taylor said. “I hope that if there is an appropriate venue in which I can contribute — whether that's as a member of the Friends of SPS if another bond issue comes down the pike or if there are any other ways in which I can be of service — I would be happy to do that. Because I still believe that SPS is a crown jewel for Springfield. I'd be humbled to help in any way that I can.”

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