A Missouri lawmaker wants to dramatically change the makeup of the Springfield school board by requiring members to live in different parts of the city.
State Rep. Craig Fishel, a business owner from Springfield, proposed House Bill 2591 to mandate more geographic diversity on the governing board for the state’s largest school district.
Under the proposal, the Springfield school attendance boundary will be divided into two similarly sized at-large districts — north and south — plus five sub-districts. Voters will pick one member for each at-large district and sub-district.
Fishel said the idea was based on input he received as a former member of City Council involved in an initiative to improve the northwest part of the city.
“It just became apparent that our school board, who all live south of Sunshine, were very good quality people and educators, but there wasn’t a representation of our entire city,” he said. “… Fair representation for all our kids is the right thing to do.”
In Springfield, the seven-member board sets policy, approves a budget and evaluates the superintendent. All the positions are at-large, meaning members can live anywhere inside the district.
Fishel said large districts, including Kansas City and St. Louis, require board members to live in different geographic zones. He wants that approach in Springfield.
“I’m out to get our kids representation and I think what will happen is that it will be a different board with different outlook, but that’s good, I think we need that,” he said. “We need somebody who is going to step up and say, ‘I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not.'”
Asked his perception of the current board, Fishel said: “My observation is that they live in their own world.”
Fishel said support, especially among retired teachers, has been overwhelming. He said there has been interest from the Springfield NAACP and neighborhood groups, and the only opposition he has encountered so far has been from board members.
Board president Tim Rosenbury said he supports the goal of having a diverse board, but this overly regimented approach is not the best way.
He said the current set-up requires each member to advocate for the district as a whole and not just for their “particular area of interest.”
Under the proposed change, he said: “There is no one fighting for the entire district.”
There have been efforts, for decades, to unify the city. Rosenbury said creating at-large positions representing north and south Springfield is a step backward.
“The notion of having a north side and a south side is somewhat of a slap in the face of the community,” he said.
Board members Jill Patterson, Bruce Renner, and Charles Taylor live south of James River Freeway; Denise Fredrick, Gerry Lee and Alina Lehnert live east of U.S. 65; and Rosenbury, the most centrally located, still lives south of Seminole Street.
Rosenbury will exit the board in April and Shurita Thomas-Tate is expected to be sworn in. She lives north of Sunshine Street.
“I’d certainly welcome a more diverse board in terms of geographic representation and in terms of what people do for a living,” he said.
Rosenbury, an architect now employed by the city, said after he leaves the board, six of the seven members will be affiliated with higher education.
In the original draft of the bill, Fishel wanted term limits restricting members from serving more than nine consecutive years. However, that idea is deleted in the revised version.
Fishel said there is one other significant change in the proposal. Currently, candidates interested in running for the board must gather the signatures of at least 500 registered voters who live within the district.
Under his proposal, the number will be lowered to 100.
Rosenbury acknowledged that the signature-gathering process is cumbersome and may be a hurdle for would-be candidates. However, that proposed change is not enough for him to support the bill.
“The overriding concern I have is about (mandating) geographic representation, and that concern alone is reason enough to oppose it,” he said.
He added that the board has the authority to lower the number of signatures required for each candidate from 500 to 100 but noted it “might look self-serving.” However, he said if there was a “movement by the patrons of the community,” the topic could be added to an upcoming board agenda.
“That could be done by school board action,” he said.
Rosenbury, who ran unopposed during both of his elections, said he hopes there will be more interest in future elections. He urged neighborhood groups, the Springfield Council of PTAs and others to encourage potential candidates to run.
The bill has been assigned to the House Local Government Committee, and a hearing is set for March 17. Fishel is vice chair of that committee.
Fishel said if the bill is approved and signed into law, Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller will be tapped to divide the two at-large districts and five sub-districts.
“It will be based on population size. I just want areas that represent the whole city,” he said.
If approved, the changes would start with the April 2022 election. There are two options for implementation — change all board positions to the geographic zones that year or phase the change in over a three-year period, as they expire and come up for election.
Fishel said switching all seven positions at once may be cleaner, but he is leaning toward the phase-in option so each member can finish out his or her current term.
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com and consider supporting vital local journalism by subscribing. Learn more by visiting News-Leader.com/subscribe.
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