Virginia school board elections face a pivotal moment
FREDERICKSBURG — The “crossroads of the Civil War,” as Virginia’s Spotsylvania County calls itself, is once again a cauldron of hostilities, this time minus the muskets.
Within range of four battles that laid waste to tens of thousands of lives, 21st century culture wars rage. The stakes hardly compare to such tragic losses, but feelings run fever high.
Dirty tricks spill out; political struggles are taken to the extreme.
The principal flashpoint: school board meetings. And not just here. A long tradition of doing prosaic but vital work has sunk into chaos and poisonous confrontation across the country. The lower rungs of democracy are cracking.
In Virginia's Tuesday elections, the far right is fighting to gain control of more local offices — often school boards — while the left claws back with cries of “fascism.”
Though the nearly 600 school board seats open in the state are officially nonpartisan, political parties and aligned groups have been aggressively involved. Each party wants its say over the future of public education. National figures, including presidential candidates, are watching to see which side prevails as a hint about voter sentiment heading into 2024.
Around the United States in recent years, a growing faction on the right has targeted public education, arguing parents should have more control over what their children learn and experience at school.
Their fight to remove classroom materials they view as upsetting to children, dump equity programs and reject accommodations for transgender students has sparked a fierce backlash from parents who say supporting public education means ensuring children with different backgrounds and needs have ample opportunity to thrive.
Public meetings devolve into screaming matches. Legal complaints fly. Deputies kick people out. School board members refuse to cede any ground.
At a Spotsylvania County School Board meeting Sept. 11, a session when some in the room wanted the focus on a long-broken high school auditorium sound system, a member of the public stood to declare Michelle Obama is a man.
Another rose to say promoters of transgender rights in schools should be “executed.” Another read explicit sexual passages from a book she said was in school libraries, as the board members sat mute. No progress was made on the auditorium.
A year earlier, a meeting devolved into such chaos that the county sheriff pulled his deputies from future ones.
“The local political scene is just bananas,” said Belén Rodas, a candidate for school board who received money from a Democratic political action committee but won't take any party endorsement. “Everything about Spotsylvania right now is completely extreme and chaotic and irrational.”
Her conservative opponent, endorsed by the local GOP, does not disagree. “It has become just a nonfunctioning mess," Jordan Lynch said of the school board.
Dale Swanson, first vice chair of the county GOP, voiced a need for “someone with real calmness” as she handed out sample ballots to voters at an early polling site. “They don’t trust anything in politics now,” she said. “Things have gotten so far out of hand."
With school board fights nationwide pitting social conservative groups, such as Moms for Liberty, against teachers unions and others on the left, it seems the old axiom that all politics is local no longer applies. Local politics now is everyone’s fray.
Virginia has taken center stage. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin was elected in 2021 on a platform of parents’ rights.
In August, Spotsylvania County became the first school division in Virginia to adopt the governor’s model policies on transgender students, requiring school staff to refer to children by the name and pronoun in their official record and only change that with a parent’s written permission.
Now, many Virginia counties have school board races as high voltage as Spotsylvania's.
The polarization distresses Frank Morgan, a retired educator in Virginia and South Carolina.
“The partisanship just scares me to death,” he said. “I want voters to look at the whole picture and not just narrow little slivers that fire people up.”
Things have changed in Spotsylvania County.
In 2017, when Tamara Quick started regularly attending school board meetings, she didn't always agree with the members, but they were always professional, she said.
“You could tell they were a cohesive group for the most part that was really trying to do what was best for students," said Quick, a 52-year-old mother and special education advocate.
In November 2021, the board voted for staff to remove books from the shelves if they contained “sexually explicit” material. Two members suggested the books should be burned. Facing a fierce public outcry, the board voted to rescind the ban a week later.
The same month, an election flipped the school board, giving four from the hard right a one-vote majority.
Out went the county's schools superintendent of nine years. In came a former county administrator who had no experience in public education but was a business acquaintance of the family of Kirk Twigg, last year's school board chairman.
The tumult has prompted many teachers and staff members to leave.
Fabiana Parker, 45, is an English-as-a-second-language teacher who won the statewide prize for teacher of the year in 2022 while working in Spotsylvania County schools. She left before the 2023-24 school year because she didn’t agree with the district’s new positions on LGBTQ issues, books or diversity, equity and inclusion.
History and language arts teacher Heather Drane also left this year, after she was informed she would be involuntarily moved to a different school after 18 years in the same building. She had been vocal in criticizing the new school board majority.
Drane said she knows at least 10 other staff members who have left in part because of the school board’s new direction.
“The soul of this county is on the line," she said.