‘Truth In Politics’ group behind attack ad in SPS board race says it will not ‘back down’

The group Truth In Politics has funded an attack ad running on KY3 that opposes incumbent Charles Taylor in the April 5 school board election.

The group Truth In Politics has funded an attack ad running on KY3 that opposes incumbent Charles Taylor in the April 5 school board election.

Following a public call for Truth In Politics to remove its TV attack ad opposing a Springfield school board candidate, the group issued a statement saying it stood by the ad and had no plans to “back down.”

The five-paragraph statement, like the group’s 30-second ads running on KY3, targeted Charles Taylor, doubling down on a false accusation that he pushed critical race theory in the district.

Taylor, first elected in 2016, is the sole incumbent in a five-way race for two spots on the April 5 ballot. The other candidates are Kelly Byrne, Chad Courtney, Steve Makoski and Brandi VanAntwerp.

The attack ad paid for by the opaque Truth In Politics group — which lists an address in Jefferson City and a phone number in Washington, D.C. — urges voters to elect Byrne and Makoski but stated neither had anything to do with creating the ad.

Byrne and Makoski have stated they were not behind the ad, but only Byrne has called for it to be taken down.

On Tuesday, the Vote417 political action committee led by a former Springfield mayor, a retired fire chief and an ex-journalist held a press conference to call for Truth In Politics to remove the ad and for Byrne and Makoski to condemn it.

They argued there was no place for “dark money” in the local school board race. Truth In Politics paid nearly $30,000 for the ads to run on KY3 in the two weeks prior to the election.

For the second week in a row, the News-Leader reached out to developer Curtis Jared, the president of Truth In Politics, and left a detailed message seeking comment.

Jared did not return the call but Royce Reding, a Truth In Politics board member, called to offer a statement from the group.

Part of the statement, sent after the newspaper’s print deadline, was quickly added to the online version of the story.

The rest specifically targeted Taylor and was not immediately included to give the News-Leader time to seek a response from Taylor (as it had previously sought a response from the Truth In Politics group).

Here is the statement from Truth In Politics, in its entirety:

“The views espoused by Charles Taylor are not represented by a majority in our community.

“Under Mr. Taylor’s leadership, 3,500 SPS teachers and administrators underwent training that identified observing Columbus Day and the Make America Great movement as ‘covertly racist.’

“All this, while academic achievement in Springfield Public Schools has been on a rapid decline. In fact, the SPS graduate’s current average ACT wouldn’t qualify them for admission to Missouri State University.

“Truth In Politics will continue to educate the community. It is a fact that Mr. Taylor has compared opponents of critical race theory being taught in schools with Ku Klux Klan members dawning a white hood.

“We stand by our ad and will not back down to those afraid of the community learning the truth.”

Former Springfield mayor Bob Stephens, vice president of the Vote417 PAC, spoke Tuesday at a press conference. He called for the Truth In Politics group to pull its attack ad in the school board race.

Former Springfield mayor Bob Stephens, vice president of the Vote417 PAC, spoke Tuesday at a press conference. He called for the Truth In Politics group to pull its attack ad in the school board race.

Taylor, a professor of communication at Drury University, responded early Wednesday. Here is his full statement:

“The claims made by this outside PAC are simply false. As I have stated on multiple occasions, I do not support teaching critical race theory in SPS as it is not developmentally appropriate. I do absolutely support nurturing diversity, equity, and inclusion as our students live in and will one day lead in an increasingly diverse global community.

“I have been a productive and visible member of the board for six years, one whose only priority is serving the best interests of our community and our kids. There is an ample record for anyone honestly interested in my values or communication style. I have spent my professional career teaching the skills of rational, ethical, and civil persuasion to thousands of students, and I strive to practice what I preach.

“The unprecedented dark money funded attacks during this SPS board campaign stand as a stark illustration of what happens when those virtues are ignored.

“This campaign, SPS, our students, our community, and our democracy deserve so much better.”

The Vote417 PAC issued a response after Truth In Politics posted its statement.

“It’s sad to see ‘Truth In Politics’ get called out on their lies then double down with even more lies. Every school board meeting is recorded and available for public view. It’s time for them to put up or shut up.”

Taylor clarifies April 2021 comment

The News-Leader asked Taylor to address the allegation he compared individuals who oppose CRT with the KKK. He pointed to the answer he gave during an interview with Nick Reed, a conservative talk radio host on KGBX.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor

In the interview that aired Monday, Taylor said his comments from the April 2021 event at Drury were taken out of context.

Taylor said he’d been asked to talk, at the event, about the “importance of civil discourse in America” and efforts to recover “that sense of civility…especially with those people with whom we disagree.”

At the event, Taylor said individuals on one side of an issue will too often describe those on the opposite side in “unflattering” or inaccurate ways. By way of example, he said some may compare those opposing CRT to KKK members donning a white hood, while others may portray those supporting CRT as “crazy socialists” or “un-American.”

“My point was we have to do better, hard stop. We have to do better,” he said during the KGBX interview. “Regrettably, what was reported somehow or another was half of that equation.”

Taylor added: “The larger issue here is that the way we talk to each other, the way we talk about one another is, I think, corrosively uncivil in a lot of instances and I think we have to get past that.”

More: Campaign fundraising for SPS board exceeds $123K with one week to go

He said when the allegation surfaced a year ago, top district and Drury officials looked into it but no action was taken.

“Honestly, I wish the event had been recorded. We could have just released a video or the audio tape and this would have all been over,” he said, in the interview. “Because, it really did take on a life of its own.”

Improving student achievement

In its statement, the Truth In Politics group alleged academic achievement has been on a “rapid decline” in the district.

The statement and the ad both point to the average ACT score in the district, which has been going down in the past decade.

For the 2019-20 year, the average ACT score in Springfield was 19.5 out of a possible 36 with 1,561 seniors taking the college-readiness exam. The district was lower than the state and national average of 20.7 and 20.6, respectively.

Ten years earlier, when just 994 seniors took the exam, Springfield’s average ACT rate was 22.9 and higher than the average state and national scores.

The results of state-mandated exams released in December showed 47 percent of the Springfield students were at or above grade level in reading, which was slightly higher than the state average.

Only 33 percent of Springfield students were at or above grade level in math, compared to 35 percent in the state.

However, there is no evidence to suggest a linkage between student test scores and the controversy about CRT.

The district’s equity and diversity advisory council did not meet until 2019 and the staff training that resulted did not take place until the following year.

The 2022 Springfield school board candidates clockwise from top left, Charles Taylor, Brandi VanAtwerp, Kelly Byrne, Steve Makoski, and Chad Courtney.

The 2022 Springfield school board candidates clockwise from top left, Charles Taylor, Brandi VanAtwerp, Kelly Byrne, Steve Makoski, and Chad Courtney.

Springfield school officials have repeatedly said improving student achievement is the top priority. The district is providing more local, state and federal resources to provide extra help aimed at closing the academic skill gaps that existed before the pandemic and were exacerbated by two years of upheaval.

In interviews with the News-Leader and other media outlets, all school board candidates said they wanted to improve student achievement and ensure graduates are prepared for success in college and careers.

The board’s role in staff training

In the statement by Truth In Politics, the group makes allegations about the content of the district’s mandatory diversity and equity training for employees.

The district has been caught up in a national firestorm over the decades-old critical race theory that argues that race is a social construct and racism has been embedded in policies and legal systems in the U.S.

CRT, primarily studied in higher education, emerged as a political lightning rod during the 2020 U.S. Presidential campaign.

Byrne and Makoski, the candidates backed by Truth In Politics, and at least one current board member — Maryam Mohammadkhani, who was elected in 2021 and has publicly endorsed Byrne and Makoski — have repeatedly said they believe that CRT was part of the district’s employee training.

Maryam Mohammadkhani

Maryam Mohammadkhani

The other three candidates, including Taylor, said they believe it was not.

The district acknowledged CRT was part of the targeted training in fall 2019 for district officials, the board, and equity and diversity “champions” but has consistently denied it was part of the widespread training required of all teachers and staff.

Two employees filed a federal suit in August 2021, alleging the mandatory staff training on diversity violated their rights. The suit named the district, the school board and four top school officials.

Taylor, as a board member, was named in the lawsuit. Truth In Politics pointed out the training was required under Taylor’s leadership.

“In response to a request for comment, it is important to note that staff training includes both personal and professional development. The related resources that continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented are not developed by members of the Board of Education. That is not their role,” said Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for the district. “The Board of Education collectively establishes district policy and guides its strategic direction.”

‘Truth In Politics’ answers questions

Along with the statement, Reding said the group could provide “sources” to back up the allegations.

The News-Leader followed-up with questions even though Reding said he did not see how the group would receive a “fair shake” after only part of its statement was included in the Tuesday story.

Here are four questions asked by the News-Leader and how they were answered by the Truth In Politics group:

Q: What prompted Truth in Politics to weigh into this election?

“Community awareness in local elections was the reason Truth In Politics formed. Our aim is to ensure the community is aware of who is running in local elections and bring light to the public actions and positions of those running. In this particular case, we felt that it was important for the community to know Dr. Taylor’s viewpoints on CRT and how he references the KKK in describing those opposed to its teaching.”

Q: What role, if any, did Byrne and Makoski play in the ad? Are either affiliated with the group in any way?

“None whatsoever.”

Q: Who donated to, or funded, the purchase of the air time for the ads?

“Community members who are concerned about the trajectory of our community. Most of our supporters contributed donations of $100 or less.”

Q: If the group is successful and Taylor loses and Byrne and/or Makowski win on April 5, what does the group hope will be the result?

“We have no agenda other than to support candidates whom we believe will govern our public schools with our children’s best interest in mind and not their own social agendas. We look forward to parents having a say in their children’s education and resisting single viewpoints being pushed through curriculum.”

Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to [email protected].

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: ‘Truth In Politics’ group says it will not ‘back down’ or pull attack ad