A founding member of Truth In Politics, which ran TV attack ads for weeks before the April school board election, recently spoke about the group’s influence in local races and said how “our work is not done.”
Royce Reding said the outside spending group, which is organized as a 501(c)(4), is “really proud” of what it accomplished in the 2021 and 2022 school board elections.
Incumbents were defeated and three candidates backed by the group — Maryam Mohammadkhani in 2021 and Kelly Byrne and Steve Makoski in 2022 — were elected by voters.
“If you look at when we first entered the fray to now, I think we’ve seen a just drastic difference in the policy of the board,” Reding said Thursday evening on the Elijah Haahr Show guest hosted on KWTO by Makoski. “But we’d be remiss if we were to say that the job is done and the work can stop.”
Reding, a developer and CEO at Nevont, said Truth In Politics is “regrouping” with an eye toward the April election, when two of the seven seats on the governing board are up for grabs.
If new candidates are elected next April, every member of the governing body that sets district policy, approves a budget, and hires and evaluates the superintendent will be serving his or her first three-year term.
“My hope is that we see some wonderful candidates emerge that are willing, like you and your colleagues, to put their name on that ballot to serve their community and, you know, focus on the students,” Reding said to Makoski.
The two seats that expire in April belong to Shurita Thomas-Tate, serving her first term, and board president Denise Fredrick, first elected in 2011. She is currently the longest serving member.
Makoski said he does not know if they will run again “or just bow out and come off the board.”
Reding referenced comments about Pride flags Thomas-Tate made at the last meeting to show why the group’s “work is not done.”
Makoski said he respected his board colleagues and did not want to comment. “I don’t want to take a political position when I’m on the school board, during the meetings … I think that’s left (to) other types of venues.”
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‘Use a little bit of hyperbole’
Active since at least 2021, the opaque Truth In Politics group grabbed headlines earlier this year when it spent more than $30,000 to run an attack ad on KY3 accusing school board incumbent Charles Taylor of hijacking “meetings so he can push critical race theories over and over again.”
CRT, a decades-old academic theory primarily used in higher education, has become a political lightning rod in recent years. Taylor denied pushing CRT or hijacking meetings to push any agenda.
The 30-second ad urged support for Byrne and Makoski and attempted to connect CRT — which the district has repeatedly denied was part of mandatory teacher trainings on equity and diversity — and a drop in student achievement levels.
Reding explained the approach to the ad. “What we tried to do in a short timeframe is grab the voters’ attention, use a little bit of hyperbole to do that, but to highlight an issue that is a hot button topic for the community.”
More:SPS school board candidates weigh in on critical race theory, efforts to ban it
Truth In Politics said neither Byrne nor Makoski, or their campaigns, were involved in the ad. Byrne distanced himself from the ad, saying it was in “poor taste” and called for his images to be removed. Makoski did not.
On the radio show Thursday, Makoski said he was completely caught off-guard by the ad and was not aware of the Truth In Politics group until the ad aired.
“The mystique of Truth In Politics has always been in the air,” Reding said. “And that is how we operate.”
More:‘Truth In Politics’ group behind attack ad in SPS board race says it will not ‘back down’
Reding said the group has weighed in on school board, nonprofit and city council issues and that work will continue.
He said Truth In Politics was formed by “Springfield-area business people who said ‘Hey, we don’t like the direction that our community is going and we want change and we’re going to put some money collectively together and we’re going to try and influence some of that change.'”
Curtis Jared, a developer who had a long relationship with the Springfield district, is the president of the group.
Byrne’s campaign treasurer, Tyler Creach, has been the chief financial officer of Jared’s company. Creach and Jared also started Alliance Capital Investors together.
“One of our biggest priorities upfront was to take issues that are in the community, to take them out of the darkness and to bring them into the light,” Reding said.
‘They’re trying to grow a business’
The involvement of Truth In Politics and other groups, from Vote 417 to the Greene County Democrats, in recent elections has prompted questions about interjecting politics at the local level.
School board elections, and candidates, are required to remain nonpartisan under state statute.
Makoski said he’s skeptical about maintaining nonpartisan races.
“They say normally politics doesn’t get involved in school board and I think if somebody actually says that I think they’re just trying to fool themselves because I think it’s politics all the time, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, what type of campaign it is, it just happens,” he said.
Reding said school board and city council members may not declare a political party but that does not mean they are apolitical.
“Maybe we’ve structured those that we don’t put a letter by the side of the name of the individual running,” he said of party affiliation symbols. “But if we’ve learned anything in the past decade, particularly I would say in the last five years around the nation, is that all politics is local and school board races, city council races, are as political.”
Makoski asked Reding about allegations that Truth In Politics is funded by “dark money” — spending by nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors, or have donors from outside of Missouri.
“I don’t know if Truth In Politics is dark money. You tell me it’s not, so where do you get your money?” he asked.
Reding said as a 501(c)(4), Truth In Politics is classified as a nonprofit by the IRS and functions as a civic league or social welfare organization. As such, it does not have to disclose all donors.
He said “100%” of donors to this point have been local but joked he was not opposed to taking money from other areas. “Hear me say ‘Steve, I’m not opposed to taking outside money,’ so if we find out where that outside money is, I’m happy to call them.”
Reding, former campaign chair for U.S. Rep. Billy Long, said anonymity was critical for donors who are worried their work with Truth In Politics may impact other parts of their lives.
“The individuals that are going to contribute to these types of endeavors are … usually business types of people — not always, but oftentimes — and they’re the types of individuals that are going to have their businesses scrutinized by the public but also by the municipalities in which they’re trying to make a living, in which they’re trying to grow a business,” he said.
He said they may worry getting involved, and having that involvement known publicly, will impact their “bottom line” or business.
On the show, Reding questioned if his affiliation with Truth In Politics played a role in the city council vote against the coffee shop he wanted to build at Jefferson Avenue and Sunshine Street.
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‘Starting to change the trajectory’
Reding said the group has been unfairly accused of being “anti-public education,” which he said is untrue.
The Glendale High School graduate said his fiancée works for SPS and his mother and grandmother are retired educators.
“I don’t know that you can find someone who is more pro-public education,” he said.
In response to that statement, Makoski said: “To be fair … you actually took your children out” of SPS.
Reding said he withdrew his children out of concern about the direction SPS was going. He did not disclose when they left SPS or where they are currently enrolled.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with my kids really under that leadership that existed because what we saw was a board and was leadership that, in my opinion, was leading students away from student achievement and was more focused on the web of cultural advancement,” Reding said. “Frankly, that type of cultural advancement doesn’t align with my personal values, my religious beliefs.”
Reding relayed a story about a recent phone call with an SPS teacher who wanted to thank the school board.
“They said ‘I went to school to educate children, I love educating children. Unfortunately, we had gotten to a place where I don’t enjoy my job. I dread going to work because of all the process and the diversity training and the cultural training, we’ve gotten away from student achievement,'” Reding recalled. “‘And this school year has been so fun because this school year when I’ve gone to work, we’re not focused on those other issues. And what we’ve been able to focus on is student achievement.'”
Reding commended Makoski and his board colleagues for “really starting to change the trajectory and to push that focus back towards student achievement.”
Makoski noted he campaigned on a promise to improve student achievement and said he hoped Reding will re-enroll his children in the district.
“Being on the school board is very rewarding because you can hear people like yourself, or just like that little story you told about that phone call, and how (teachers) actually get to teach now,” he said. “It feels good.”
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com.