SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Since school boards across the country have been under scrutiny there is more interest in who is running for Springfield Public School Board and what they plan to bring to the table if elected.

The seven-member nonpartisan school board is responsible for these duties:

  • Hire and evaluate the superintendent
  • Set an annual budget
  • Approve and revise policy
  • Oversee the district’s strategic plan

Five candidates will appear on the April 5 ballot:

  1. Kelly Byrne
  2. Chad Courtney
  3. Steve Makoski
  4. Charles Taylor
  5. Brandi VanAntwerp

Two of the candidates, Byrne and VanAntwerp, attended Springfield schools and were on the ballot in 2021 but did not win. For Courtney and Makoski this is their first time running. All five candidates are parents and three of the candidates (Byrne, Courtney, and VanAntwerp) have children enrolled in the district. Makoski and Taylor have children who graduated from the district.

We talked to each of the five candidates about what they believe they bring to the table.

Kelly Byrne

Byrne graduated from Kickapoo High School and moved away from Springfield to go to college. However, after college, he came back and started a business and a family.

Byrne, a real estate developer, said it became impossible for him to ignore the teacher shortage at Springfield Public Schools.

“And I was like I can do that. That sounds fun and it sounds like a way I can get involved,” said Byrne.

But if Byrne wins the seat he will have to stop substitute teaching.

“I wish there was a way for our board members to be more engaged at the classroom level,” said Byrne. “It doesn’t have to be a full-time gig, but something where at least a few times a year they have a really good perspective on what goes on in our classrooms and the types of things our teachers deal with. It really doesn’t translate when you are looking at statistics at the board room level.”

Struggles teachers faced during the pandemic

“The pandemic really poured gas on the fire,” said Byrne. “Our district has been in a rough spot for several years.”

ACT scores in the district have been dropping for six years. Discipline policies have made it difficult for teachers to control the classroom. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

A survey conducted by the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) showed 80% of Missouri teachers considered leaving the profession. Byrne says the district is at a critical moment and could be in a position where it is unable to fill needed positions.

Byrne stresses that students need to be in a classroom setting.

“Our district since going virtual that first year we lost 1400 students,” said Byrne. “So those 1400 students went to private school and moved out of the district.”

According to Byrne, this was not because of COVID-19 but because of the district’s reaction to COVID-19. Since then some students have returned to SPS but it is still considered a major loss for the district.

“This is a really big deal that the board is going to have to deal with potentially for next year. We could lose millions in funding due to these losses of students.”

Byrne said it’s important that the district takes a closer look at how money is being spent continuing to place an emphasis on supporting teachers.

Why are you the right choice?

Byrne said the board needs individuals with business and management experience.

“What I don’t believe we’ve been doing for over six years is providing proper oversight to the superintendent,” said Byrne. “I believe board members have too often been a cheerleader for the superintendent rather than overseeing the superintendent.”

Chad Courtney

Chad Courtney is a Springfield lawyer who has a practice with his partner Ann Mills. The two have been working together for 16 years and Courtney practices in family law. He also represents the best interest of children to the court when there are allegations of abuse or neglect in a case.

Struggles teachers face

“Teachers have shown to be extremely resilient with dealing with issues during the time frame of the pandemic,” said Courtney. “Like the rest of us, they had to be willing to accept change on a daily basis. I think they have done a great job and we will have to support and continue to support them because now that we are back full-time and hopefully not going to have to do any more virtual learning, it’s going to be very important to keep students in the classroom.”

Why are you the right choice?

“First and foremost I’m not running with a particular agenda or an ax to grind on this,” said Courtney. “I really want to do what’s best for every student in Springfield Public Schools. And I will take each and every issue as it comes to the board and evaluate that based on the facts that are presented.”

Courtney said he is a big supporter of SPS but knows there are issues and work that still needs to be done within the district. One of those issues is the achievement gap.

He also said we need to think about the students who don’t plan to go to college after high school.

“We need to make sure those kids are ready to enter into the workforce and are job-ready when they graduate high school,” said Courtney. “I think we need to continue our efforts with OTC and other programs across the district to introduce students to job skills that will help them move forward.”

Steve Makoski

“I decided to run because I saw a decline in academic achievement. The important thing about our children is that our children are our future. When you have had an academic decline over the last 10 years, that’s concerning to me.”

Steve Makoski said children’s success is dependent on their education and he wants to figure out why this decline is happening and what can be done to fix it.

“Right now we can’t go another year of decline because every time we have a decline in academic success for our children another child is going to be lost. Another child is going to get left behind.”

To get into Missouri State University students have to have a 20 ACT. Makoski said the district has a 19.5 average ACT.

Struggles teachers face

“The pandemic opened a lot of people’s eyes,” said Makoski. “We were sending children home and they weren’t spending time in the classroom. And they were doing a lot of their work on Chromebooks. The pandemic has shown that teachers have quite a bit on their plate and the in-person learning goes away and the parents have difficulty because when the children bring home the Chromebooks, the parents want to be able to help but they can’t help. They don’t have textbooks in their hands.”

One thing Makoski wants to change is the school board’s access to classrooms.

“You have school board members that are very limited on the access within the schools,” said Makoski. “What I think is important is in order for me to make good decisions on the school board is I believe school board members should be in the classrooms.

Why are you the right choice?

Makoski said he’s lived in Asia and Europe, which has given him experience with working with people who have different backgrounds.

He worked for multiple businesses, as an employee or consultant, in human resources and risk management. Part of his current job is to “save the money from going out the door.”

“Because of my vast experience and knowledge, I believe I can bring a different point of view to those on the school board for consideration,” said Makoski.

Makoski said a background in compliance helps him understand the state and federal laws. He said he has also developed a lot of relationships.

“I will get a lot of feedback from the community that I can bring to the table for us to consider and be able to help shape and form or adjust policy that will directly impact … the curriculum and the different types of issues the school faces.”

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor moved to Springfield in 1997 and is a first-generation college graduate. Taylor, who was born into a military family, has lived in a number of places including Japan.

“By the time a graduated high school it was the 13th school I had attended before my dad retired,” said Taylor.

Taylor, first elected in 2016, is the only incumbent seeking re-election. He has had a number of roles at Drury University ranging from teaching, administrative, and leadership roles.

Struggles teachers face

“Teachers have been remarkably flexible with the fully digital, then blended, and now back in classrooms,” said Taylor. “I think the biggest thing we can do is enable them to do what they do. Let teachers teach. I think it will be important for us to turn down the volume on the politicization of public education. Teachers are just trying to do the job we hired them to do. Very few people go into education to get rich. They do it because they want to leave the world a little better than the way they found it by helping students.”

Taylor said if the pandemic taught people anything it is that learning is complicated when you switch between platforms.

“In my own professional life I was fully virtual for a while when the world shut down in the Spring of 2020 and we have been flipping through zoom classes to seated classes,” said Taylor. “The ideal situation is not to eliminate technology. Technology is a tool in the hands of a gifted teacher. Chromebook, PC, or IPads is never going to replace a teacher. That said, students also come to the learning experience with a lot of different challenges. They may have their own health challenges whether physical or emotional. So, having that digital alternative can for many students a lifeline. Technology is a tool to be used by good teachers no more or no less.”

Why are you the right choice?

“I understand sort of both the administrative as well as the teaching side of the equation,” said Taylor. “I also understand that there is a structure and there is a budget framework in which all of that learning takes place. I do my homework. I take what I do very seriously as a board member and as a teacher but I don’t take myself seriously and I think that is a good combination in terms of mediating and negotiating.”

Brandi VanAntwerp

“I’m a mom of three SPS kids and I attended SPS myself,” said VanAntwerp. “My three kids are split between elementary and middle school and I have biological and foster children in my home.”

VanAntwerp is the executive director at FosterAdopt Connect located in Springfield. FosterAdopt Connect works with children, youth, and families as they navigate the complexities of the child welfare system.

She believes it’s vital to support SPS educators to ensure all students have a strong educational opportunity. Her interest in the educational system was sparked by getting more involved with her own son’s health and learning plan.

VanAntwep and her husband sat down with teachers, counselors, and the principal to discuss her son’s challenges. VanAntwerp says they were so impressed with how supportive the administration was to ensure her son had the best educational opportunity.

Struggles teachers face

“Some areas of concern I have for our teachers is ensuring that they feel heard and that they feel like they have open access to voice their opinion,” said VanAntwerp. “I was really fortunate this year to be endorsed by the Springfield NEA which is our educator’s association, which is a teachers union. I’m very interested in hearing from all of our teachers and what they need to feel supported. And also I want to advocate for them so that we can get them better pay. When we are ranking 49th and 50th in the country in salaries for our teachers, we are doing them a disservice.”

VanAntwerp has been in the PTA for Pershing Elementary for seven years and is also in the PTA at Central Scholars.

“Something that I’ve always found disheartening and I think we’ve all just gotten so used to it is that our teachers have to go do go-fund-me accounts just to get projects for the classrooms or to get supplies that they need for their classrooms. Or we hear that teachers are spending their own money to buy supplies for their classrooms.”

Why are you the right choice?

VanAntwerp said her experience growing up in a low-income family and working on behalf of children who need extra support spurred her to run again this year.

“I’m a mom and was an SPS kid myself. I’m an executive director of a non-profit organization that serves children every single day. I’m very passionate about this work and I intend to be very thoughtful in my process and engage stability when talking and working with my partners as board members and also engage stability when talking with parents and our children. I’m prepared to listen and work for the greater good for all of our kids.”