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Tom Ricks school board controversy
June 21, 2019
Pastoral letter from school board candidate Tom Ricks causes controversy online
With the Kirkwood School Board election approaching Tuesday April 2, Jake Lyonfields, a self-described community organizer, made a Facebook post calling to #RejectRicks on Sunday March 24. The “Ricks” in the hashtag refers to Tom Ricks, a candidate for the Kirkwood School Board and the lead pastor at Greentree Community Church. After finding it from STL American journalist Charles Jaco, Lyonfields included a pastoral letter in his post that Ricks sent to his congregation in May 2016 but began surfacing just over a week before the election. Detailing a Christian opposition to homosexuality and transgenderism, the letter began circulating to Kirkwood community members on Facebook.
Ricks’ 2016 letter to the Greentree congregation states that “gay and transgender lifestyles” are sinful and result from a recent cultural shift toward accepting human sexuality. He emphasizes loving LGBT people, saying “every sinner in the world is welcome at Greentree.” Since the initial post, social media has been abuzz with commentary.
“They’ve misrepresented our church, they’ve taken my comments about human sexuality out of context and ignored half of the message which calls everyone to love people equally and respect each other equally,” Ricks said. “I’ve been characterized as a person who hates people who have same-sex attraction. [My faith] tells me to love people unconditionally.”
Lyonfields said he worries that even with mention of love, Ricks’ view of homosexuality as purely sinful would harm LGBT students if he was in a position of power in the district.
“I have a deep concern about the message that [electing Ricks] would send to Kirkwood students,” Lyonfields said. “When a community elevates somebody who has published a letter detailing their beliefs about the immorality of people who are not cisgender, of people who are not straight, then we’re sending a message to queer youth that they don’t belong.”
In addition to the letter, Lyonfields endorsed Darnel Frost and Mark Boyko, the other candidates for Kirkwood School Board, although he is not professionally affiliated with either candidate. Jaco said he is concerned, however, with how Ricks’ religious beliefs would affect his job as a school board member since Ricks also blamed education for acceptance of homosexuality. Ricks said “cultural acceptance of unhealthy sexual expressions that are being endorsed by educators in many of our classrooms” is a “spiritual danger.”
“If Ricks assumes that the Bible is a guide to human sexuality, I can only assume he thinks the Bible is also a guide to biology and astrophysics,” Jaco said. “This is a slippery slope and I think Ricks is very clear about what he believes and the kind of person he would be on the school board.”
Dr. Michael Havener, KHS principal, declined to comment on how strong religious affiliations could affect school board members’ decisions. Frost, who is the current school board director, said none of the current school board members’ religious beliefs intersect with their position in any way.
In the letter, Ricks said that in political situations “we must not let fear of what others think of us or laws our government may or may not pass drive our position on human sexuality.” Ricks said he takes his faith into everything he does, but that he would never discriminate against anyone in his position as a school board member.
Dr. Michele Condon, KSD superintendent, does not have a comment on the pastoral letter or how religious bias could affect the role of a school board member.
Jaco said the potential implications of a Ricks tenure in office would send a dangerous message to the members of the LGBT community living in Kirkwood. These students have already had a tough enough life, he said. In his Facebook post, Lyonfields cites a statistic from the Trevor Project that states lesbian, gay and bisexual people are five times as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual ones, and 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.
“While I have certain positions on morals and human choices of conduct, the greatest commandment that I have is to love my neighbor as myself,” Ricks said. “[When talking to someone] with whom I may have a respectful disagreement, I hope I would treat them with kindness and with love in the same way I hope they would treat me if they disagreed with me.”
Update: Controversy around Tom Ricks grows as Kirkwood responds to pastoral letter
Grant Trokey, 2016 KHS graduate, had attended Greentree Community Church for as long as he could remember. For two years during high school, he played with the worship band a few times a month and attended camps with the church. Then, at age 18, he came out as gay. Within a month, he found he was no longer allowed to play in the band or be involved in a leadership role at the church he said he had always loved.
“It was against the church’s rules and doctrine to allow any member of the LGBT community to hold a leadership position in the church,” Trokey said. “The youth pastor was very kind and very clear that they did not agree with that decision, but it did come down to the church leadership under Tom Ricks telling me that I wasn’t allowed to be part of the church in that way.”
Ricks, lead pastor at Greentree Community Church and Kirkwood School Board candidate, sent a pastoral letter to his congregation in May 2016 which stated homosexuality as a sin. In the letter, Ricks defines tolerance as “accepting a sinful behavior as good in the eyes of God,” and says when regarding same-sex attraction, “tolerance is not a virtue, it is spiritually criminal.” Opinions within the Kirkwood community vary on whether Ricks is fit for the Kirkwood School Board, but Trokey said he does not believe he is.
“[My experience] put me in some position that I’m unequal to others and other kids my age just because of [my sexuality],” Trokey said. “I don’t think that has a place at a public school, especially when it comes to peoples’ lives and lifestyles when it could affect someone’s quality of education.”
To Jim Seibert, Greentree Community Church member, a school board with a diverse set of beliefs will prepare students for the real world, where there are disagreements, and give them the best education possible. He said Ricks has always used his influence with the church in service of Kirkwood, and that his values would be a positive addition to the school board.
Is it better to have someone on the school board who you don’t know what their core beliefs are and they can act on those beliefs without anybody realizing? Or is it better [if someone] has beliefs out there you don’t necessarily agree with but at least they’ve taken a stand? Stand up, be counted, say, ‘this is what I believe in,’ and we can balance a school board out with people who come from different beliefs and different values.”
— Jim Seibert, member of Greentree Community Church
“Is it better to have someone on the school board who you don’t know what their core beliefs are and they can act on those beliefs without anybody realizing?” Seibert said. “Or is it better [if someone] has beliefs out there you don’t necessarily agree with but at least they’ve taken a stand? Stand up, be counted, say, ‘this is what I believe in,’ and we can balance a school board out with people who come from different beliefs and different values.”
Darnel Frost and Mark Boyko, the other two candidates for the Kirkwood School Board, are both Methodist. Both said everyone has religious viewpoints, but it’s important not to let these beliefs affect their role as a school board member. Boyko said he read the letter shortly after Ricks announced his candidacy and said his focus as a school board member would be making sure KHS students would feel welcomed in the Kirkwood community.
“My focus in my campaign is on the safety of our students,” Boyko said. “We all come in with varying backgrounds and beliefs on all sorts of issues. Obviously, a public school is not a place for trying to advance your personal religious beliefs, especially if that impacts the environment that [KSD] is trying to create.”
TKC reached out to all current members of the school board in an effort to gain a better understanding of its religious makeup and decision-making but received no response. TKC also made multiple attempts to reach Ricks for further comment, but no response was given as a result of Ricks having prior commitments, including overseeing two funerals, over the weekend.
Julie Sutfin is the KHS Gay-Straight Alliance sponsor and said seeing a formal argument with Ricks’ religious beliefs toward “gay and transgender lifestyles” in black and white shocked her. She said when opinions of this nature are so vocalized, especially if it comes from a position of power, it can harm LGBT youth.
LGBT students [are] the highest group of any of attempted suicides and completed suicides. I have to wonder if in part that’s because some churches are telling them that God thinks they are defective and need to be fixed”
— Julie Sutfin, sponsor of KHS Gay-Straight Alliance
“I see when young people are told either directly or indirectly that fundamental aspects of their personhood, their selves, are defective and immoral, it can lead to really deep damage,” Sutfin said. “Self-hatred and negative self-worth at minimum, but self-harm all the way to suicide. LGBT students [are] the highest group of any of attempted suicides and completed suicides. I have to wonder if in part that’s because some churches are telling them that God thinks they are defective and need to be fixed.”
There are still many in the Kirkwood community, however, who do not believe Ricks’ personal beliefs disqualify him from fairly performing the duties of a school board member. Sara Denckhoff, Greentree Community Church member, said she understands the perspective of those who are uncomfortable with Ricks being in this position but supports him because she personally believes his leadership would benefit all students. Denckhoff, as highlighted on a Facebook post she wrote in support of Ricks, said it is important to have a wide range of beliefs represented on the Kirkwood School Board even if not everyone agrees with these beliefs.
I don’t believe that Tom would harm the LGBT community in any way, but I’m not going to downplay someone’s opinion who thinks he might. I get where the other side comes from. My vote and my reason to support Tom is because I personally don’t believe that.”
— Sara Denckhoff, member of the Greentree Community Church
“My intentions are for all kids at Kirkwood, no matter what, to have exactly what they need to be successful no matter what they believe or their race, religion, sexual orientation or anything,” Denckoff said. “I don’t believe that Tom would harm the LGBT community in any way, but I’m not going to downplay someone’s opinion who thinks he might. I get where the other side comes from. My vote and my reason to support Tom is because I personally don’t believe that.”
Another vote toward Ricks is coming from Mike Gibbons, a longtime friend of Ricks, who endorsed his candidacy on Ricks’ official Facebook page. Gibbons said although he hasn’t read the controversial pastoral letter, Ricks is fit for the Kirkwood School Board based off the service he has provided to the Kirkwood community from providing gifts for students around Christmas who otherwise couldn’t afford them to working on fixing the achievement gap in the district by improving early childhood education. Peggy Demetri, director of women’s ministry at Greentree Community Church, also described the main role of Greentree in the Kirkwood community as one of service. Demetri said Ricks’ leadership experience and care for the community will allow him to make decisions on the school board to benefit all students.
“There’s nothing better than being a friend of Tom Ricks,” Gibbons said. “That’s a guy who would actually honestly take the shirt off his back if you needed it and it doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, or whether he’s known you forever or just met you on the street. I mean, this is a very kind, compassionate, caring, active guy and I cannot believe that he would harbor ill-will toward anyone or any group on any reason under any circumstance.”
According to Sutfin, not only are school board members leaders in setting the cultural tone for KSD schools, but they can set and change a wide range of policies that can affect all students. Members can set and change non-discrimination policies, including those involving bullying and hate speech, as well as the consequences for all of these. She also said the board is basically in charge of what is taught in KSD schools, as they can both approve curriculum and decide which textbooks can be used in classrooms.
It is for these reasons the pastoral letter written by Ricks gives Sutfin cause for concern, and why she hopes the school board will, no matter what, fulfill its role in representing all KSD kids, no matter who they are or who they love.
“Our Kirkwood community has been really good allies of our LGBT students,” Sutfin said. “Our principals have strived to set a tone of inclusiveness and respect for all our human differences. [It’s] integral to the kind of top-notch place Kirkwood High School is. Our school board, I believe, should always and everywhere represent these values, also.”
School board election results
Kirkwood citizens came out to the polls on Tuesday, April 2 to cast their votes in the school board election. Mark Boyko and Darnel Frost were elected. The results were updated throughout the night by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. TKC compiled the final results:
Frost – 4,266 40%
Boyko – 3,700 34.7%
Ricks -2,593 24.3%
Below are brief profiles of the two winners by the Webster-Kirkwood Times:
Frost, 912 Woodlawn Ave., is the only incumbent running for re-election. He has served on the board for six years, serving two of those years as the board president.
Frost and his wife, Amy, have three children: A 2014 Kirkwood High grad, a current Kirkwood High student and a Nipher Middle School student.
Frost has been involved in Kirkwood schools and the community in several capacities over the years. He has chaired the district’s task force dedicated to eliminating the achievement gap, and has served on the city’s human rights commission. He also coaches basketball and soccer.
Frost believes his experience on the board and commitment to educational equity makes him the best candidate.
“Our school board needs continuity and my six years on the board provides that,” Frost said. “Equity for all students has been my priority during my time on the board, and I will continue that. We’re working on some big things right now, and I’d love to be able to see them through to completion. I always make decisions using the lens of what’s best for our children.
Boyko, 3 Boxwood Lane, moved his family to Kirkwood four years ago for the school district. He and his wife, Meg, have two children: A daughter attending Robinson Elementary and a son at Nipher Middle School.
Although Boyko is relatively new to the district, he is no less committed to its excellence.
“We chose this school district intentionally, and the sense of community here is stronger than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Everyone here has a mutual history that is binding whether they’ve been here for a month or five generations, and I think that’s something we should be proud of.”
Boyko believes his work as an attorney and experience managing the finances of a nonprofit with a budget about half the size of the district’s, will make him a valuable member of the Kirkwood School Board.
Boyko said if elected his priorities will be safety and security, helping all children and parents feel welcome, and setting all children up for success, which begins with ensuring that all students have access to preschool education.
Frost and Boyko will take office at the upcoming school board meeting on Monday, April 15.