Public comment periods at the Loudoun County School Board have repeatedly gone viral as hundreds of parents and activists speak out against new transgender policies mandated by law and Critical Race Theory (CRT) equity initiatives. There’s also an effort to recall six of the school board members. But Loudoun County Public Schools isn’t the only Virginia school district to see new growth in public involvement in school politics.
In neighboring Fairfax County, efforts are also underway to recall school board members. Last week, WHSV reported that in Augusta County, hundreds of people attended a public hearing, commenting in opposition to a local school transgender policy to comply with state law. In Albemarle County, the school board has plans to use a lottery to limit a public comment section to 40 people at its July 8 meeting after 32 people spoke at its May 27 meeting, as reported by The Daily Progress. Politico reports that similar advocacy is expanding nationally, demonstrated by the growth in school board recall efforts both in Loudoun County and elsewhere.
Virtual Classes and Meetings Boosted Public Involvement
Albemarle County Public Schools Strategic Communications Officer Phil Giaramita told The Virginia Star that the district normally devotes 30 minutes to public comment in its meetings, but is expanding that time to 80 minutes, allowing 40 people per meeting to comment, although written comments are not affected. The district’s meetings are still being held virtually; Giaramita said that’s part of the problem.
“Attendance and public comment requests have increased as the result of meetings not taking place in public but online. The motive for the change is to reasonably and responsibility balance the interests of the school division’s business with the ability of people to orally address the board,” Giaramita said.
Former Loudoun County Supervisor and School Board Member Geary Higgins also said that COVID-19 precautions had led to the increase in public comments in Loudoun County — but he said virtual learning sparked the increase with parents frustrated over virtual learning. Higgins is the Chairman of the 10th District GOP unit.
“That was the initial thing but then as parents were involved with their kids in watching what was going on in these virtual classrooms, they were getting an eyeful of some stuff that I don’t think they were aware of that was going on,” Higgins said.
“I guess if there was a silver lining to this whole COVID shutdown it’s that parents got an opportunity to see what was going on in the classroom, and in a lot of cases they weren’t very happy with it,” he said.
Higgins said parents are concerned about CRT and a decrease in education quality.
Loudoun County School Board citizen reporter Julie Sisson said concerns about CRT have spread thanks to social media and COVID-19 precautions.
“This is the result of virtual meetings and classes. People can record and share, so controversial or even inflammatory topics, discussions, and comments that would have remained private and/or their existence denied are now supported with video evidence,” Sisson said.
Sisson said the wave of public involvement in the county had its origins in 2019 protests against Policy 1040.
“I think you have to go back to Policy 1040 which was updated by the previous [school board]. They incorporated ‘sexual identity and gender expression’ into their nondiscrimination policy as one of their final acts in office. Perhaps that seems relatively innocuous, but several groups sounded the alarm that this would lead to problems, including bathroom/locker room issues, in the future,” Sisson said.
She said, “Proponents said that was hyperbole, wasn’t their intent at all, and was never going to happen. Two years later, here we are. It seems like many who were fine with the original changes to Policy 1040 are feeling like it is being taken too far.”
Sisson and Higgins think activism around the issue isn’t going away.
“I definitely expect to see this movement continue. The [school board] returns from its summer hiatus on August 10th, and they are expected to take up the transgender rights topic at that time,” Sisson said. “And as I’m sure you’ve seen, the whole ‘anti-CRT movement’ is now an election topic.”
Local Involvement vs. Activism to Boost Election Turnout
Republican candidates have highlighted the issues, beginning with calls to open schools and transitioning to CRT opposition. Gubernatorial candidates Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe have traded blows on CRT. But Higgins said the wave of local involvement is more than just activists stirring up an issue to boost election turnout.
“I know some of the news organizations have wanted to report it that way because some of the people who are involved are Republicans and have been active in Republican politics,” he said.
Higgins said an effort to recall six school board members had over 11,000 signatures. He said, “Those are not all local Republican activists.”
Equality Loudoun President Chris Candice Tuck said there hasn’t been any evidence that CRT is being taught in Loudoun County, despite the apparently high number of involved parents. He said the number of signatures to the recall petitions is low compared to the number of voters in Loudoun County, and that high participation in public comment periods isn’t all Loudoun County parents.
“They are looking at less than one percent of all the people in Loudoun County Public Schools. Additionally, they’ve had to host dozens of dozens of signing events all across the county and they still haven’t reached the number of signatures needed to even be able to submit them after over two months,” he said.
He said that at a recent LCPS school board meeting he saw a bus bring in outsiders, and said many commenters used the same material disseminated by activist organizations. “I don’t think this has anything to do with local parents. This is the same tactic that’s being used in states across the country.”
“It seems to be a coordinated effort at the regional or even national level to drive up turnout,” Tuck said.
“I think that so far in this race there has not been much to talk about except COVID and CRT,” Tuck said. “It’s the same tactics you saw in the lead-up to [Trump’s election]. It’s a different topic, but basically consolidating different groups around a topic that drives anger and hatred, back then it was immigration, now it’s reverse racism with a fancy new name.”
Both Tuck and Higgins say the issue doesn’t fall neatly along party lines — Tuck said he’s a conservative, and Higgins highlighted Democrats he had spoken to who signed the recall petitions.
Higgins does think the issue will have an impact on Virginia politics.
“I think this is going to change the landscape,” Higgins said. “This is my view of it, but the Democrats, most people don’t seem to like all the power of government being in one party’s hand. So, Democrats in my view have way overreached on some of these issues.”
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