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Virginia school board elections face a pivotal moment as a cozy corner of democracy turns toxic

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — 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 devastating 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 United States. The lower rungs of democracy are cracking.

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In Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, the far right is fighting to gain control of more local offices — often school boards — while the left claws back with cries of “fascism.”

“Just bananas,” a Spotsylvania School Board candidate with Democratic support says of the local fight over education. “So far out of hand,” agrees a county Republican leader.

Though the nearly 600 school board seats open in Virginia 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 the off-year election to see which side prevails as a hint about voter sentiment heading into 2024.

Candidate signs are seen at the Spotsylvania county early voting site in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

Candidate signs are seen at the Spotsylvania county early voting site in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

It’s a microcosm of what’s happened around the country in recent years as 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.

In communities where political differences used to be sorted out with civilized compromise, public meetings devolve into screaming matches. Legal complaints fly. Deputies kick people out. School board members refuse to cede any ground. Neither side can bear giving up what each thinks is best for kids.

Students wait for any change in the struggles they face, among them pandemic learning loss, mental health problems and teacher shortages.

A poll volunteer displays a misleading sample ballot that a candidate for Spotsylvania County clerk of court was handing out at an early voting location in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 17, 2023. The blue sheet marked "(D)" appears to come from the local Democratic Party but was distributed at the scene by Nick Ignacio, the independent candidate for court clerk, with his name checked. Ignacio also gave out red sample ballots that resemble the Republican one, implying to voters who didn't look too closely that both parties have endorsed his bid in Tuesday's elections. Neither has. A judge subsequently barred Ignacio from distributing the sheets. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

A poll volunteer displays a misleading sample ballot that a candidate for Spotsylvania County clerk of court was handing out at an early voting location in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

In Spotsylvania County, both sides can agree that Tuesday’s election will determine whether any progress is possible and whether a plaintive cry to restore civility, heard from many across the political spectrum, can be met.

Two meetings, a month apart, illustrate the gulf between the raw politics of the day and the sober civility that some dare hope will return.

One was a discordant school board meeting in September that stretched over nearly five hours. The other was a school board candidates forum that drew a full room in October. The first showed what the school board has looked like the past two years. The second showed what a more conciliatory future might be.

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THE SEPTEMBER MEETING

At the county school board meeting Sept. 11, a session when some in the room tried to reach agreement on fixing a high school auditorium’s terrible sound and stage-light system so plays can be put on properly, a member of the public stood to declare that Michelle Obama is a man.

Jordan Lynch, left, a Spotsylvania school board candidate, and Dawn Shelley, a current member of the board, have a conversation after a candidate forum in Fredericksburg, Va., Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

Jordan Lynch, left, a Spotsylvania school board candidate, and Dawn Shelley, a current member of the board, have a conversation after a candidate forum in Fredericksburg, Va., Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

Another rose to say that promoters of transgender rights in schools should be “executed.”

Another read extended and explicit sexual passages from a book she said was in school libraries, as board members sat mute. They spent much of the meeting arguing with each over procedures and stopping the show with cries of “point of order.” Motions to move ahead on the auditorium refresh failed on tie votes.

The online recordings of these meetings — in a rural, somewhat transient community about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the nation’s capital — draw thousands. The sessions have been known to last nine hours.

In September 2022, one meeting got so bad the county sheriff pulled his deputies from future ones, exasperated, he said, by demands from the chair that his officers eject citizens merely for expressing opinions contrary to the body’s conservative leadership. Since then, the school board has hired its own private security to stand guard at meetings.

“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.”

Heather Drane is photographed on Oct. 17, 2023, outside the Stafford County, Va., middle school where she now teaches after 18 years at a school in neighboring Spotsylvania County. Drane says she knows at least 10 other staff members who have left Spotsylvania schools in recent times, in part because of the "toxic stew" of school board meetings in the county. Over the past three years, local school board elections have become the place where America's deep political divisions are on full display. In Tuesday's elections in Virginia, far-right candidates are looking to take over a number of school boards or expand their slim majorities while the left fights fiercely to gain background. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

Heather Drane is photographed on Oct. 17, 2023, outside the Stafford County, Va., middle school where she now teaches after 18 years at a school in neighboring Spotsylvania County. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

Her conservative opponent, endorsed by the local GOP, does not disagree.

“Anybody that’s been paying attention to the Spotsylvania School Board in particular has realized, you know, it has become just a nonfunctioning mess,” said Jordan Lynch, a onetime agitator from the floor of school board meetings who has moderated his positions and voice.

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In her Republican-red jacket, Dale Swanson, first vice chair of the county GOP and chair of the Rappahannock Conservative Women’s Coalition, 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.”

She added: “We need a better, kinder America.”

As she spoke to a reporter, an independent candidate for clerk of court, running on a platform of streamlining handgun permits, handed out misleading sample ballots near her, some in blue and some in red. They fooled some voters into thinking each political party had endorsed his candidacy.

Democrats and Republicans implored him to stop, but he defiantly pressed on until, days later, a judge barred him from distributing the sheets.

“There’s dirty tricks being played all over the place,” Swanson said. “This country is so divided now, and they’re pitting people against people and parties against parties. And it’s intentional. It’s really intentional. None of us accomplishes anything that we want to do, neither party.”

With school board fights nationwide pitting increasingly sophisticated 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 the state to adopt the governor’s model policies on the treatment of transgender students, requiring school staff to refer to children by the name and pronoun in their official record and only use alternate names or pronouns with a parent’s written permission.

With Virginians divided over what Youngkin’s vision of parental rights means, many counties have found themselves facing school board races as pivotal and high voltage as the one in Spotsylvania.

In Rockingham County, a network of parents is working to find safe havens for transgender teenagers, bracing for an election that could push the board farther to the right.

In Goochland County, civility and the board majority hang in the balance as the board’s vice chair sues her four colleagues for defamation.

The polarization on school boards distresses Frank Morgan, a retired career-long educator in Virginia and South Carolina who said schools can only work with collaboration in the community.

“The partisanship just scares me to death,” he said.

School board members “are just going to focus on these hot button political partisan issues and not look at really the successful operation of schools,” he said. “I want voters to look at the whole picture and not just narrow little slivers that fire people up.”

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A CALMER PAST

Things in Spotsylvania County weren’t always this way.

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.

Dale Swanson, chair of Rappahannock Conservative Women's Coalition, poses for a portrait at the Spotsylvania county early voting site in Fredericksburg, Va., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

Dale Swanson, chair of Rappahannock Conservative Women’s Coalition, poses for a portrait at the Spotsylvania county early voting site in Fredericksburg, Va., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

“There might be some elevated voices or some obvious disagreements like you’d have around the dinner table with your family at Thanksgiving,” said Quick, a 52-year-old mother and special education advocate in the county. “But you could tell they were a cohesive group for the most part that was really trying to do what was best for students.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Quick recalled, and fights over masks, remote learning and the content of books in school libraries stirred conflict.

At a meeting 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, thrusting Spotsylvania County into national headlines.

“I don’t want to even see them,” Rabih Abuismail, who is giving up his seat on the board this year, said of the books. “I think they should be thrown in a fire.”

Kirk Twigg, his colleague who is running for reelection Tuesday and served last year as board chairman, said he wanted to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

Met with a fierce public outcry, the board voted to rescind the ban a week later.

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THE RIGHT TAKES OVER

The same month, an election flipped the school board, giving Twigg, Abuismail and two more hard-right colleagues a majority on the seven-person board. Twigg became chairman.

The county’s superintendent of nine years agreed to resign at the end of the school year to give the board time to find new leadership. Instead, the new majority fired him “without cause” during an incendiary meeting as one of its first acts.

Community members attend a Spotsylvania school board candidate forum in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

Community members attend a Spotsylvania school board candidate forum in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Serkan Gurbuz)

It then paid a recruiting company $25,000 to search nationwide for a new candidate, according to local news reports, only to select Mark Taylor, a former Spotsylvania County administrator and attorney who had no experience in public education. Taylor had previously served on the board of an organization run by Twigg’s family, according to state records.

During a March school board meeting, in a budget discussion, Taylor floated the idea of eliminating school libraries, cutting advanced programs and laying off teachers if the school system didn’t get the money it needed. The same month, in response to a law signed by Youngkin requiring that parents be notified of sexually explicit content in instructional materials, he ordered schools to remove 14 books from the shelves, two of them by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

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His hiring is one of many school board moves that have left some community members exasperated.

“They turn off microphones of minority board members,” said Tom Eichenberg, a retired principal who spent 20 years working in Spotsylvania County. “They cut off public comments when they don’t like what they’re hearing.”

He said the board does not allow minority members to bring up new business and has not approved meeting minutes in over a year, which means the only record of each one is an hourslong video that is difficult to search.

Eichenberg, who said he used to email school board members with questions regularly and receive quick replies, sent The Associated Press copies of emails he has written to the new majority. He has fired off more than 20 and received no answers to his questions.

In February, just after his term as chair, Twigg was charged with criminal forgery of a public document and a misdemeanor count of tampering with a public record in an effort last year to unilaterally raise the pay of an interim superintendent above levels approved by the board. Twigg pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a jury trial expected in January.

Chatting up voters and volunteers at the early voting site last month, Twigg declined to be interviewed by the AP, saying only: “Right now we’re just going to let the elections continue. … You’re going to have a new sheriff and a continued conservative, constitutional school board — and watch us work, in the name of God and community.”

Superintendent Taylor, board member Abuismail and the current board chair, Lisa Phelps, did not respond to requests for comment.

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TEACHERS EXIT

The school division’s new leadership has prompted many teachers and staff members to leave for neighboring districts.

Among them is 45-year-old Fabiana Parker, 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, along with several other language teachers, because she didn’t agree with the district’s new positions on LGBTQ issues, books or diversity, equity and inclusion.

“I wasn’t in a district that was aligned with my beliefs,” said Parker, now teaching in Manassas.

Longtime history and language arts teacher Heather Drane also left this year. The final straw was when she was informed she would be involuntarily moved to a different school and position after working 18 years in the same school. While she does not have proof, Drane thinks it was retaliation for her vocal resistance against the new school board majority.

“It just seemed like I turned around and one minute, we’re being lauded for the extra work we were doing, and the next, we were being vilified,” said Drane, who added she easily knows 10 other staff members who have left in part because of the school board’s new direction. “I do think the soul of this county is on the line.”

Parents are questioning whether to stay, too. Quick, for one, is set in her post-election plans if the school board’s status quo remains.

“We will 100% be putting our house on the market if it doesn’t change significantly,” she said.

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THE OCTOBER MEETING

It’s not all screaming.

On Oct. 16, six school board candidates showed up for a forum sponsored by the NAACP. To a person, they preached civility and normalcy. They promised to come to school board meetings with respectful voices and fealty to Robert’s Rules of Order, the guide to how to run — and behave in — such proceedings.

The genuine Spotsylvania County Republican sample ballot, left, is displayed Oct. 17, 2023, in Spotsylvania, Va., next to one that resembles it but doesn't come from the GOP at all. Nick Ignacio, independent candidate for county clerk of court, handed out the version on the right, with his name checked as if he's been endorsed by the party. Representatives of both parties said Ignacio was confusing voters at an early voting location in Fredericksburg, and should stop, but he defiantly pressed ahead until a judge barred him from distributing the sheets. A GOP official said the campaign for Tuesday's election is seeing "dirty tricks being played all over the place." (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

The genuine Spotsylvania County Republican sample ballot, left, is displayed Oct. 17, 2023, in Spotsylvania, Va., next to one that resembles it but doesn’t come from the GOP at all. (AP Photo/Cal Woodward)

The crowd applauded Lynch, the one Republican-aligned candidate to attend, as he called for the politics of compromise,. It did the same for the more liberal candidates on the panel when they, too, summoned the better angels of community life.

Though given only one minute to respond to each question, the candidates, at least on the surface, appeared to get closer to agreement on books in school libraries than the shouters across the country have managed to achieve in all of their cantankerous debate.

Liberals said they don’t want their children exposed to everything, either. Some were open to a ratings system like that for movies. Several endorsed parental notification by email when a student checks out a book.

Candidates touched on ways to let parents opt their children in or out of being able to check out a list of challenged books.

“The book burners have never been on the right side of history,” Rodas told the audience.

“We don’t need to burn them,” said her opponent, Lynch. “We don’t need to ban them.”

No one criticized anyone in attendance. After the forum, Rodas and Lynch chatted with each other and posed together for a neighborly photo, smiling broadly.

“It was nice to hear a little bit of common sense again, and collaborate,” Rodas said.

For at least a moment, politics was local again.

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Swenson reported from New York. Associated Press video journalist Serkan Gurbuz contributed to this report.

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