Monday, December 11, 2023

Candidates Contend for School Board Seats Amid Increasingly Politicized Backdrop

Virginia educators and supporters raise their hands as they chant for more school funding during the Virginia Education Association’s annual school funding rally at the State Capitol Bell Tower in Richmond on Jan. 27, 2020. (Emma Gauthier/VCU Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for election this year — but that’s not the only thing Virginians will be voting for on Election Day.

Nearly 600 candidates are vying for school board seats over an increasingly politicized backdrop. Most of the school board races in more populous areas are contested, but a majority of the races are uncontested, according to a Cardinal News analysis. In some districts, the candidates have been endorsed by political parties, although the candidates run as independents.

Also on the ballot in Hanover County is a referendum that could change the future design of the school board. Hanover is one of 12 Virginia localities where school board members are appointed rather than elected by citizens. If passed, the referendum would do away with school board appointments.

Marcus Newsome is a former superintendent of Newport News, Chesterfield County and Petersburg City school systems. Some school board candidates may align their candidacy to a single issue related to their political leanings, as opposed to a focus on teaching and learning in schools, Newsome said.

“It is quite troubling because, in the end, when we get involved in these political divides the children are the ones who get hurt most,” Newsome said.

The increasingly politicized nature of school board races might deter some potential candidates from running, Newsome said.

“They don’t want to get their families, in some cases their children, involved in the political debate,” Newsome said.

School board candidates as of the end of August raised at least $1.1 million more this year than in 2019, based on financial statements compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. That is a 66% increase in fundraising.

The Fairfax County Federation of Teachers is a labor union of teachers, counselors, librarians and other staff in Fairfax County Public Schools. District enrollment is the highest in Virginia and among the highest in the country.

David Walrod started teaching in Fairfax in 2010. He is president of the union, and a special education teacher at Lake Braddock Secondary School.

The union endorsed nine candidates for the Fairfax County School Board. Those candidates value education, and understand that improved working conditions for educators attract people to the profession, according to Walrod. It also supports candidates who “want to teach truth in education,” Walrod said.

“Education in the last couple years has become kind of a target in various culture wars,” Walrod said. “We have a lot of folks that are out there trying to do book banning, that are trying to restrict what’s being taught in schools.”

Book challenges by parents across the country continue to increase, according to analysis by Pen America, an advocacy group for writers and publishers that supports freedom of expression. The study found over 40% of all book bans occurred in Florida, which has legislation like the Stop WOKE Act and the Parental Rights in Education law (referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law by critics).

“We don’t want to see that happen here in Virginia, and we especially don’t want to see that happen here in Fairfax County,” Walrod said. “So if we see candidates that are talking about banning books, talking about restricting access to information, that raises our hackles.”

Collective bargaining is the group’s top priority in the upcoming election, after a resolution in March to give educators collective bargaining rights, according to Walrod.

Fairfax County’s Republican and Democratic committees each endorse candidates in school board races. Beyond that, Walrod suggests voters take advantage of a candidate’s online presence to decide who to vote for ahead of the election.

“Go to their social media page and see what sorts of articles they’re highlighting, see what sorts of things that they’re putting out there,” Walrod said.

Often Fairfax County School Board candidates are asked to fill out questionnaires which can help folks get more information, Walrod said.

Walrod hopes that “at some point, common sense starts to prevail again.”

“Some of the stuff that’s going on is very counterproductive,” Walrod said. “We have a lot of folks that are trying to score political points off the back of education, and what’s going to end up happening is they’re going to make more and more people not want to go into education, and ultimately it’s gonna be the country that suffers for that.”

Daniel Latham is a Spotsylvania County parent and community member. Latham first became interested in the Spotsylvania County School Board during the pandemic. Since then, he denounced mask mandates and challenged books in the district’s libraries, according to a Washington Post article.

“The problem that we have in Spotsy currently is that, with every election cycle, both sides of the argument are nominating candidates that are further and further towards the poles,” Latham said.

Latham considers himself a conservative voter, but said he understands not everyone is.

“When you’re implementing public policy, which is what the school board’s doing, they need to try and find a middle ground solution that works for everybody and just currently, that’s not even an option,” Latham said. “Everybody’s so invested in the fight right now that they kind of lost sight of why we’re all there.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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