FILE - Eric Schmitt, Virus Outbreak Missouri

In this Aug. 6, 2020, file photo, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference in St. Louis. Attorney General Schmitt on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021, filed a class-action lawsuit aimed at stopping school districts from requiring masks. The lawsuit cites several districts across the state that have enacted mask mandates in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

(The Center Square) – Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against pringfield Public Schools on Tuesday claiming the district violated the state’s Sunshine Law to hide evidence its was using critical race theory teachings in teacher training and student curriculum.

The 55-page petition was filed against the largest school district in the state in Greene County Circuit Court. In addition to citing violations involving the attorney general’s request for information from the district, the lawsuit cites requests made by state Rep. Craig Fishel, R-Springfield, and Patrick Ishmael, the director of government accountability at the Show-Me Institute.

“Parents have every right to know exactly what is being taught to their children, especially when public school systems are implementing components of critical race theory and so-called ‘antiracism’ teachings in teacher trainings and applying social justice scorecards to math and other core curriculum,” Schmitt said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Springfield Public Schools has skirted our efforts to demand answers and transparency for parents who send their kids to Springfield Public Schools by demanding exorbitant fees for public records. Now, we’re taking Springfield Public Schools to court for those public records. I will always fight for parents’ rights to know exactly what schools are teaching their children.”

Schmitt, who’s running for the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Roy Blunt in 2022, was criticized by the district as wasting taxpayer funds with the lawsuit.

“SPS is disappointed by the Attorney General’s decision to use the power of his office to attack public education,” Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, said in a statement. “This is an attempt to intimidate SPS, and while it will not prevail, it will unfortunately require considerable taxpayer resources to defend.”

The 13-count lawsuit claims Springfield Public Schools was,

  • communicating excessive fee estimates for non-copying charges and non-search related charges;
  • failing to use the lowest-paid information technology employee and a low-wage clerk for retrieving public records;
  • failing to provide public records or an estimate for finding all relevant public records;
  • denying other relevant staff-training public records existed;
  • providing an excessive fee estimate for student curriculum public records;
  • stating it had two relevant items without conducting an initial search;
  • requiring a $37,070.06 deposit and other fees for search, research and retrieval for other public records;
  • failing to identify available relevant public records;
  • denying other public records existed;
  • narrowing a Sunshine request;
  • denying records existed without performing a search
  • providing an excessive fee estimate to Rep. Fishel by charging for redactions;
  • communicating an excessive fee estimate to multiple requesters when it could have charged for lower-paid clerk services.

The lawsuit also noted a federal lawsuit filed by two district employees contending their First Amendment rights were violated during a professional development session on equity and racism.

“The district has been in ongoing communication with the Attorney General’s office regarding his requests for information,” Hall said. “The Attorney General’s request is similar to the one most recently drafted by Rep. Fishel. In both circumstances, the requests are extraordinarily broad in scope and have the potential to divert hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of district staff time to search and review thousands of pages of documents. The original request includes all staff and student email communications sent over multiple years. SPS is accountable to taxpayers and to the educational needs of our 24,000 students. As a result, SPS should and will seek appropriate reimbursement.”

The lawsuit requests that the court issue a judgment declaring the district violated the state's Sunshine Law, orders the release of all relevant records to the attorney general, and orders a $1,000 civil penalty for knowingly violating the law. Most of the petition contains multiple references to critical race theory (CRT), which holds that racism is inherent in U.S. laws and institutions and is meant to maintain inequalities between white Americans and people of color.

The lawsuit references a training attended by the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education, senior leaders and district staff facilitated by the Facing Racism Institute. The lawsuit quotes a district strategic plan document stating the training will “introduce components of critical race theory,” but doesn’t state the content is part of student curriculum.

The district said critical race theory is not being taught in its schools.

“… any deliberate misrepresentation of the district’s work by elected officials must end,” Hall said. “These efforts represent a loud, divisive, and misguided distraction. SPS has been very clear: Critical Race Theory is not being taught in our classrooms. Our work is focused on equity, not CRT. SPS is being intentional in the educational experiences we provide all of our students. Ensuring our district is equitable and inclusive is our ethical responsibility to make SPS safe for all students and staff.”

Staff Reporter

Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.