O’Fallon school board member faces calls to resign over controversial comments
Two dozen people went to the podium June 4 at the O'Fallon District 90 School Board meeting to speak during a 90-minute public comment period, though many did not need the microphone to be heard.
Most called for the resignation of three-term veteran school board member Steve Springer, who is under fire for making comments that many people think are racist, homophobic and Islamophobic, but which Springer called "misconstrued." It was the second time in three weeks that large crowds packed the gym at Fulton Junior High in O'Fallon.
"When you make racist comments, it makes you a racist," said parent Ray Roskos, who also is an Illinois Federation of Teachers union field director. "When you make bigoted comments, it makes you a bigot. Period. End of discussion."
Tensions continued to escalate in the wake of controversial emails that surfaced at the last board meeting May 15.
They were obtained by Roskos through a Freedom of Information Act request after Springer challenged the O'Fallon Public Library's selection of a children's book, "Justice Makes A Difference: The Story of Miss Freedom Fighter, Esquire," for a March 24 program. He said it was "inappropriate" and considered it political indoctrination.
Springer did so as a private citizen at an O'Fallon City Council meeting April 16, he said. Springer also is a member of the Metro East Pachyderm Club, which hosts speakers and encourages citizen involvement. Fellow club member Mary Gray also stood with him that night, bringing up club business regarding her concern about not being able to reserve space for club meetings at the library anymore.
The emails were sent to Superintendent Carrie Hruby in August 2016 over accommodations for a transgender student that were carried out by the administration at the request of the student's parents.
Springer said during the June 4 meeting that Roskos and others have "attacked" him for his concerns regarding policy that, at the time, had yet to be adopted.
Following the granted accommodations of the transgender student in 2016, the board decided to develop a policy on equal educational opportunities. An early draft provided protections for all students, "without regard to color, race, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation, ancestry, age, physical or mental disability, gender identity, status of being homeless, order of protection status, actual or potential marital or parental status, including pregnancy."
In an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request from January 2017, Springer suggested that this specific language be removed. Board members later approved the policy known as "7.10" without the language. At the June 4 meeting, Springer questioned why they supported him then but not now.
"I feel that this board, my fellow colleagues, have turned their backs on me," Springer said, also noting that none of the board members contested his words in the August 2016 emails on transgender and Muslim students either.
The school board issued a statement May 17 disavowing Springer's controversial comments.
"When he voiced his opinions, his voice was his alone. Furthermore we do not agree with nor support the comments made in the released emails and will not endorse discriminatory policies of any kind," the statement from fellow board members stated.
At the June 4 meeting, school board member Rebecca Huller pushed back at Springer's claims, noting that the policy underwent many revisions since its inception.
"The policy is very far different from what you originally recommended to the team, and I argued profusely over many sections of that policy because of my job as a school psychologist and my understanding of knowing what these kids go through," Huller said.
After the meeting, school board President John Wagnon said the language was eliminated because it was believed that it would be more concise to use the phrase "as required by law" because it still would "cover all students rather than list each protected class individually."
Wagnon elaborated that "this was not an attempt to exclude anyone; rather it was a way of providing a more succinct statement that provided protection for all students."
In 2016, the administration collaborated with the transgender student, along with his parents, to "arrange for him to change for P.E. and take restroom breaks in the nurse's office area," Hruby said in her email to Springer.
"It seems you have decided to change the God-given biological makeup of this student without input from a court, the BOE or God," Springer wrote in one of the emails concerning the student. "The child is a girl. She needs to be referred to as a girl. I am sad she is having such problems and is confused."
When talking about his comments in the emails not being discriminatory at the meeting June 4, Springer continued to refer to the student as a "confused girl" with the "she" pronoun instead of "he," which had some attendees speaking out to correct him, which he ignored.
In another email, Springer made a remark about accommodating the hypothetical needs of various students.
"Next up?? Yes, next will be a place for Mohamed to wash his little feet and face Mecca three times during the school day," Springer wrote to Hruby.
Springer said previously, and again June 4, that his remarks were "not discriminatory," but rather a call for his fellow board members to begin reviewing policy to address issues in the future.
Board member Jason Boone was not in attendance at the June 4 meeting. He was attending his son's O'Fallon Township High School super-sectional baseball game in Champaign. He has been publicly vocal about his opposition to Springer's controversial comments, asking him to resign during the May board meeting and taking to social media to encourage the public to attend meetings and contact board members.
"I'm saddened by our board president's lack of action and leadership," Boone said after the June 4 meeting.
On June 7, Wagnon said he talked at length with Boone about his previous public comments regarding his opinion on wanting Springer to resign, and that the board is "unable to take any action against Springer" for his controversial comments.
According to Wagnon, he has also spoken directly to Springer on multiple occasions and "firmly believe(s)" he will not resign.
Boone said he feels the board should "consider a resolution formally requesting he resign," and if that doesn't work "request the regional superintendent" to.
"I'd rather make the request and her decide than our board take no action," Boone said.
However, St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty said it's "not her role" to get involved unless a school board member exhibits "willful negligence of duties," because "the law is very clear leaving no wiggle room."
Following conversations with Sarfaty, Wagnon said, "asking for a resignation (from Springer) won't do anything."
School board member Mary Baskett addressed Springer saying his 11-minute speech at the June 4 meeting "bothers me because you sound angry."
"You sound more angry and you're attacking back the people (who) you're criticizing for attacking you," Baskett said.
She "challenged" Springer to "try to be more neutral and instead of attacking back to people to show people you're not the kind of person they think you are."
Following the executive session portion of the June 4 meeting, Wagnon talked with board members for roughly an hour about a discussion that needs to be had once all members are in attendance regarding the controversy hovering around Springer's controversial comments and Boone's outspokenness with his fellow board member.
Wagnon went on to say it's "not fair" to talk about the issues at hand without Boone present, and that he plans to have a discussion at the next meeting on June 19.
The idea of sanctioning Boone was then brought up by Huller, but Wagnon said "it's futile because he can still attend meetings and vote, and it essentially accomplishes nothing, so I have no plans to do such."
"Boone is allowed to comment if he likes and post on social media, but posting comments on Facebook while a meeting is underway is a different story because the board members should all have visibility on what is being said during a meeting," Wagnon said.
Kara Kienzler, executive director of communications for the Illinois Association of School Boards, said in an email to the Progress, imposing a sanction on a board member overall is "difficult."
"As to sanctioning for other misbehavior, some board attorneys assist their boards, but it’s difficult to do because there is no constitutional provision that implies such power," Kienzler stated.
Kienzler added that censure is more commonly done, but with the help of board attorneys.
"Censures are often used when a board has a difficult situation and it wants to separate from the inappropriate conduct of one (or maybe more) board member(s)" Kienzler stated.
Calls for resignation, retraction
Fifteen community members and parents called for Springer's resignation at the June 4 meeting. Springer once again made it clear with a bold statement: "No way in hell will I resign from this board."
Since the May meeting, Springer's remarks have several organizations calling for his resignation, including the Missouri and Chicago chapters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Equality Illinois, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association Board of Directors.
As of June 4, that list has grown to include the Belleville Mosque and Islamic Education Center, and Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois, both of which had board members who spoke during the public comment portion of the most recent meeting.
Metro East Pride of Southwestern Illinois Vice President Jameson-Michael Hand, who is transgender, shared his own experience struggling as a youth over gender identity when people "would make remarks like 'you're a girl,' or 'you'll always be a girl.' "
He said if he had the "education and support" earlier in his life, he may not have had to deal with mental issues or suicide attempts.
"My question to you, Mr. Springer, is why would you put a child's safety at risk?" asked Hand, who went on to say that mental issues can arise when transgender individuals' self-identified gender is not accepted.
Former Fulton student Cameron James "CJ" Casconi, also a transgender man, said that if Springer can't keep his personal beliefs separate from his responsibilities as a school board member, then he should step down.
"You are fully entitled to your beliefs. What you're not entitled to is using your position on the board to bully kids while furthering your personal and religious agendas," Casconi said.
Belleville Mosque and Islamic Education Center teacher Kholoud Almofleh said she is no stranger to the district as she is an aide at Delores Moye Elementary, and has grandchildren who are students in the district.
"Mr. Springer wants our Muslim students to be invisible and be stressed all the time, and to not be proud of who we are," Almofleh said. "A board member should represent all students regardless of their color or faith, and if Mr. Springer is too intimidated by Muhammad's faith, then he shouldn't be in this position."
Prior to the June 4 meeting, Almofleh said she reached out to Springer to invite him to learn more about the Islamic faith but received no response. She invited him again June 4 to "open a dialogue" and visit the mosque, but he declined.
Cheryl Sommer told board members that United Congregations of Metro-East is an interfaith organization in St. Clair and Madison counties that "is committed to combating the systemic cause of injustice in our region." Sommer is vice president of the organization.
"We call on the District 90 school board members to continue to honor the diversity of our student's families and constituents. We call on you to take steps to enforce the O'Fallon School District 90 code of conduct, which says ... school board members are to represent all school board constituents honestly and equally and to refuse and surrender responsibilities to special interests or partisan political groups," Sommer said.
A parent of District 90 students, Alaina Pipas, who is also a teacher at a private school, said she is "really irritated" and "wants to get back to the basics" of what children deserve from those serving in the district.
"I am very not interested in anyone's political groups or political games being on the school board. I don't need to hear people up here defending their club or defending their group," Pipas said. "Children need to know that they are wanted, loved and that they are worthy of respect and good treatment."
She said Springer has "a ways to go to show them that you believe that."
Other parents and community members centered their comments around their "disappointment," and "disgust" with Springer's blatant "anger." Others were concerned by his "discriminatory" and "insensitive" comments asking him to either "apologize or resign."
Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery and Michael Day, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers Southwest Council, stated in a joint press release: "Mr. Springer's discriminatory comments have no place in this vibrant community or the school district that serves its young children. His views do not reflect the views of our members, his own colleagues on the District 90 board, or the broader community he represents."
The Illinois Education Association Board of Directors unanimously voted last month to pass a resolution calling on Springer to resign.
Equality Illinois, a civil rights organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, also sent the school board a letter on May 24 calling for Springer's resignation.
In the letter, CEO Brian C. Johnson said O’Fallon members are “dismayed” by Springer’s comments.
"We understand that school board members bring with them a diversity of backgrounds and experiences that inform their leadership," Johnson stated. "However, that does not absolve them from both following the law and keeping an open mind when it comes to how others, especially young people, with different life experiences should be respected and treated. By denying the teaching of social justice, refusing to accommodate a transgender student, and describing the religious needs of Islamic students in pejorative terms, Mr. Springer has made himself unsuitable to continue his position on the O'Fallon School Board."
Five community members spoke in support of Springer, including his daughter, Cory Hollerbach, who claimed her father is being "bullied."
"I am very disappointed with the amount of people in this room because it's a small amount compared to (the entire community). I'm disappointed because you are the teachers of my children, you're my church members, friends," Hollerbach said.
"You all know me, you know my family — we are not at all racist. My daughter is biracial," Hollerbach said tearfully. "We try to teach that bullying is not OK in this school district, am I right? I look at all of you tonight and at the last meeting, and see the biggest bullies ever."
She claimed her O'Fallon business has become the topic of discussion on social media sites. She said it is unfair to target her business.
"I hope that we all can listen to one another and become one," Hollerbach said.
Other allies of Springer who spoke were longtime friends Ron Davinroy and Peter Forbes, both residents of O'Fallon.
Forbes said he's had four children come up through the district's schools, and that Springer is a "good man."
"When I see the divisiveness, the separation just in this room, let alone across the country, it makes me sad," he said. "We need to listen to each other. We need to grow together. People can change, and people say things that they regret."
Forbes added, "I'm not saying that some of the things he may have said in the past are wrong, but what I'm telling you is Steve Springer is not a bigot or a racist.
"And to the school board, I ask you to respect other opinions and don't castrate somebody for a mistake," Forbes said.
Metro East Pachyderm Club President John Rosenbaum and club board member John Gray, who is the husband of Mary Gray, also defended Springer and their club.
Both Metro East Pachyderm Club members allege their club has been wrongfully labeled and attacked by media and those calling for Springer's resignation.
"Steve Springer on numerous occasions has given presentations about the school board, about how the property taxes are used to pay for the school. His presentations were always excellent and very informative," Rosenbaum said. "I think you're going down the wrong track trying to dismiss one of the hardest working, knowledgeable members on the board, his comments aside, you can take that anyway you want."
The club's values are "to promote active citizen involvement and education in government and politics and support of grassroots, Republican clubs across America."
Previously, the club has been criticized for hosting anti-Islam speakers.
Four people spoke neutrally on the topic, including Fulton Junior High Principal Joi Wills, O'Fallon Township High School District 203 school board member Brandt House and O'Fallon Classroom Federation of Teachers Local 628 Union President Tammy Eader.
"The (OCFT) Local 628 has made no comment or recommendation in reference to Mr. Springer," Eader said.
Eader added that the "large turnout" at recent meetings "has nothing to do with Mr. Springer."
"Our members have come out in full force for one reason and one reason only, and that is to support our negotiations team, our school board and our administration in our efforts to reach a negotiation agreement," Eader said.
But Springer later noted that he disagreed, citing the "noticeable absence of the little red signs" used by attending teachers to "bully and harass" during the last meeting. He also said he was pulled off of the teacher negotiations committee Friday, May 18, because his "fellow board members were bullied" into removing him from the committee.
At the last meeting May 15, more than 120 teachers sporting T-shirts identifying them as members of Local 628 attended the meeting to enforce a phrase brandished on their shirts, "Solidarity Is Strength." Every time Springer spoke, they held up uniform red signs with black letters reading, 'Enough.'
Local 628 is affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, an organization that also called for Springer to "listen to the hundreds of people of his community who have spoken out against bigotry and hate, and do the right thing."
House said he's been on the OTHS board for about four years, and has been following the controversy surrounding recently surfaced emails and public comments from and about Springer.
"We've had a respectful, collegial relationship, Mr. Springer and I, and we've talked on multiple occasions," House said.
House said he looks forward to talking to Springer more "to see where he's coming from, and hopefully, from my perspective, giving him an understanding why this is so disappointing to hear from our school board that my daughter will be a part of next year here at Fulton."
Wills took to the podium to remind attendees of the "positive" things happening in the district, and encourage those to "not get caught up in, I guess, the shamefulness and embarrassment of sometimes we get caught up in the moment and say some things that we absolutely should not say."
She went on to note, that she's "not interested in individual opinions, but I am interested in collective action and support for our amazing teachers ... and students."
District 90 parent Grace Neeley addressed words of thanks to Hruby for "sticking up for" and accommodating the transgender student discussed in the emails sent by Springer in 2016.
"It was a small, reasonable accommodation for the benefit of that student, so they could focus on learning while they were at school," Neeley said.
Directed at Springer, Neeley said: "I don't see why it needed to be made a big deal. I don't see why your religion or objections morally had anything to do with that."
Regional superintendent weighs in
Since moving into her role as St. Clair County regional superintendent in 2011, Susan Sarfaty said she has never had to remove a school board member and doesn't plan on starting now.
"The parameters of the law are very narrow as to why the regional superintendent is allowed to remove a school board member," Sarfaty said.
According to Illinois school code, Sarfaty said, "the only reason is due to if a willful failure to perform duties as a school board member."
She also said, "if not voluntary removal, then it’s very, very limited in scope. There’s no provision in the law for a recall vote either."
Kara Kienzler, representative from the Illinois Association of School Boards, wrote in an email to the Progress, "It is important to note that neither the voters nor the board has the authority to recall or remove a board member from office."
"While I disagree with the statements that have been made by a particular school board member (Springer), there has been no violation of that piece of the school code," Sarfaty said. “At this point in time I don’t see any willful failure to perform his duties, so as it stands now, so there is no reason for me to remove him or anyone else from the O’Fallon (District 90) school board."
Sarfaty has been contacted by many members of the public and parents in the district, and has been in contact with board members and the superintendent, "so they understand my role in removing a school board member," she said.
Reasons a school board member may no longer serve include: voluntary resignation; death; serious illness; willful negligence to perform duties, such as failure to attend meetings over a long period of time without medical justification; incarceration; or felony conviction.
Only once in her tenure has a board member required removal due to certain felony convictions, but they voluntarily stepped down, and that was not in O’Fallon, Sarfaty said.
“There’s lots of reasons why people resign voluntarily, like due to change in living or employment circumstances,” Sarfaty said.
Parents and community members have created a third Facebook group called "Stand Up! At the D90 Board Meeting #3," encouraging discussion online and for people to attend the 7 p.m. June 19 meeting. The groups have been created in response to Springer's controversial comments.