New board emails, texts reveal “embarrassing” politics with “bonus points”
by Asra Q. Nomani
In fall 2020, Fairfax County, Va., school board members said the quiet part out loud.
As school district officials engineered race-based admissions changes to America’s No. 1 high school, to increase the numbers of Black and Hispanic students, school board member Abrar Omeish sent board member Stella Pekarsky a text, saying: “I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol,” using the acronym for “laughing out loud.”
Pekarsky, now the board chair, responded: “…I always told people that talking about TJ is a stupid waste of tome [sic].”
Omeish answered: “Of course it is…They’re discriminated against in this process too.”
The messages are part of months of emails and texts made public in a federal lawsuit by Coalition for TJ, a grassroots parent group, against the Fairfax County School Board, alleging anti-Asian racism in the new admissions policy to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, ranked America’s No. 1 high school by U.S. News and World Report. Pacific Legal Foundation is representing the Coalition for TJ, and has carried the mantle courageously for parents in New York City, waging a similar battle to protect merit-based education. Our Coalition for TJ parents are inspiring folks with names like Suparna, Hemang, Glenn, Helen, Harry and Yuyan — all with complicated stories of overcoming adversity in their lives.
Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn has chronicled the politics in a blistering op-ed, headlined, “An Ugly Game of Race References: ‘I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol.’”
McGurn drew parallels to the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, which alleges anti-Asian admissions discrimination by the Ivy League school. The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear an appeal in that case. “We’re now seeing a great divvying up by race, from federal farm aid and Covid treatments to college admissions,” McGurn wrote. “And the practice is on the rise despite polls showing that Americans—across all racial groups—oppose race preferences. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that he will rescind a directive banning state agencies from considering race or sex when hiring, even though his state’s voters in 2019 defeated a referendum aimed at restoring race preferences.”
McGurn concluded: “The question for the courts in both Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board and Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard is whether this is really the way the authors of the Constitution intended us to live.”
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton hears the TJ case in Alexandria, Va., on Tuesday, January 18, at 10 a.m.
At Parents Defending Education, a national nonprofit that a group of mothers and I created early last year in the wake of shenanigans like the drama to destroy TJ, we organized the depressing and startling revelations in something we’re calling the “TJ Papers.” Much like the Pentagon Papers revealed the political corruption behind the decisions related to the Vietnam War, the TJ Papers give us a window into the corruption behind the decision to undermine America’s No. 1 school.
It’s not an easy read. It’s painful. But please read every word.
The back and forth by the board members is damning, insulting and indicting of political corruption and self-admitted racism and incompetence. It’s a window into what so parents around the country endure from corrupt school board members who make a mockery of our precious democracy. School board member Omeish said the admissions changes had an “anti asian feeling…lol,” other board members punctuating their comments with emojis and “haha,” as if justice and our kids’ futures are a laughing matter. Fairfax County school board members should all resign for their complicity in their unconstitutional racism and “embarrassing” incompetence, to quote their own words.
In their messages, school board members acknowledged they engaged in a “highly divisive, harmful public debate” that reflected an “embarrassing,” “rushed” and “demeaning” process, engineered by “shameful leadership” from the superintendent, Scott Brabrand, who one board member called “just dumb and too white” to navigate cultural issues with Asian and immigrant parents.
What’s more, school district officials laid out how they rigged the numbers so they could get the race-based results that they wanted with “bonus points” tied to for a “TJHSST Scoring Rubric.” In fact, playing with those numbers, Brabrand asked officials, “Can we go back and look at points – would 200 points be a game changer.”
The revelations underscore how important it is for parents to win the court case – not just for their children, but for the values of transparency, fairness, equality and hard work, as activists and educrats nationwide wage a war on merit, in the name of “equity” that limits opportunities for advanced academic students in a lazy bid to uplift lower-performing students.
Here is what happened. Read and weep. Then, wipe away your tears and support these brave parents — and parents everywhere, fighting to open schools and educate children with the best opportunities possible. Go to coalitionfortj.net to support the TJ parents and community or email them at coalitionforTJ@gmail.com. Sign up for free emails from Parents Defending Education at defendinged.org.
When TJ Class of 2024 admissions numbers were announced on June 1, 2020, a Democratic Virginia state senator, Scott Surovell, wrote to inform then-board chair Karen Corbett Sanders, the board had a new legislative requirement for a report, due Oct. 1, 2020, TJ’s “diversity goals.” In recent years, school demographics have been about 70% Asian, 20% White and 10% Black, Hispanic and multiracial.
He was “curious” about the report’s progress. Surovell’s question wasn’t benign. In 2018, in a legislative debate over TJ, one of Surovell’s witnesses, a retired Fairfax County teacher, groused about “ravenous” parents from India, who “come here however they come here,” to “only” have their children attend TJ.
At 6:21 a.m., in late September 2020, Omeish sent board colleagues an email, declaring, “To be clear, I plan to support the proposal towards greater equity, to be clearly distinguished from equality….”
In her texts, Omeish said she warned Brabrand not to say parents engage in “pay-to-play,” paying for test prep to gain admission to TJ. “Before he went down this path,” Omeish wrote, “I told him to stop it and never talk about ‘pay to play, etc.’ It is very demeaning.”
Another time, Pekarsky texted board member Megan McLaughlin: “Talking about pay to play and crap. So racist.”
The “diversity” report was a rouse. By mid-September 2020, as mostly Asian, immigrant parents held protests over a “merit lottery” admissions plan, Corbett Sanders advised Superintendent Brabrand in a Friday afternoon email to “clarify that we have a statutory requirement to submit a plan” and “reframe the discussion” to emphasize students would be selected based on “merit.”
In fact, TJ’s admissions director, Jeremy Shughart, was emailing a school district staffer, Lisa Hruda, asking if she could “provide us a review of our current weighting and whether or not this would be enough to level the playing field for our historically underrepresented groups.” Hruda said her “gut” told her to give more points to “Experience Factors,” having them total 225 points out of 1,125 points in a “TJHSST Scoring Rubric.”
On Oct. 8, 2020, McLaughlin sent board members a text to tell them she was considering admonishing the superintendent with this message: “Sadly, Scott has personally created a highly divisive, harmful public debate that was absolutely avoidable,” “incorrectly” telling the board “(and the public) that we needed to make a rushed/unvetted decision,” based on the “diversity” report.
That same day, Oct. 8, 2020, at 4:04 p.m., Sloan Presidio, soon to be named the school district’s chief academic officer, told school board member Abrar Omeish, “We don’t really have a pipeline issue because we have enough Black and Hispanic 8th grade Level 4 students (the most rigorous program we have in elementary and middle school) to fill an entire TJ class.”
The goal was simple: race-based admissions.
In another text, written in fall 2020, school board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer revealed the racial motivation behind Brabrand’s efforts, writing, “If anything I think he’s trying to be responsive to the times – BLM and a superprogressive board.”
It wasn’t lost on board member Stella Pekarsky that the district had targeted Asians, telling board member Abrar Omeish in fall 2020, “Brabrand believes in getting attention. This is how he screwed up TJ and the Asians hate us.”
Omeish responded, “I thought he was just dumb and too white,” to understand.
After the damage had been done, board member McLaughlin wrote to a constituent at 11:08 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, saying, “I feel Supt Brabrand’s flawed operational proposals have greatly contributed to tonight’s embarrassing process.” But nonetheless she voted for gutting America’s No. 1 school. None of the 12 members of the board, all endorsed by the Democratic Party, stopped this “embarrassing process.”
If brave parents weren’t fighting this injustice, we may never have gotten this education in modern-day racism, corruption and incompetence. And, even if we must go to the U.S. Supreme Court, we will make sure everyone learns this lesson, so we can correct the wrongs perpetuated as public officials snickered “lol.”
Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, cofounder of Coalition for TJ and vice president of Parents Defending Education. Erin Wilcox is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation.
The TJ Papers
‘An anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol’
May 27, 2020 — Fairfax County Public Schools staff presents TJ admissions “white paper” to closed school board meeting.
As early as May 27, 2020, school district staff and board members were considering admissions changes without any public discussion.
This is confirmed in an email on June 15, 2020, at 2:47 p.m., to Fairfax County Public Schools general counsel, John Foster, and its chief operating officer, Marty Smith, stating: “Marty, At the May 27 closed session, these two documents were shared.”
The document file names were: “Admissions_White_Paper_version8.pdf” and “Admissions_White_Paper_Executive Summary.”
In the first document, “TJHSST Admissions: Pathway Admission Process,” the “Statement of Purpose” outlined plans to change the TJ admissions process.
The document stated: “Following an extended period of analysis and careful consideration by district- and school-level leaders, FCPS proposes to adopt certain revisions to the process for admission to TJHSST effective for ninth grade in the 2022-2023 school year.”
Importantly, the document stated:
“Continue to be supported by evidence and best practice. The process will not eliminate the use of tests to assess applicants’ performance in math, reading, and science. Rather, the process will utilize an applicants’ test scores as one of several components that inform evaluation of a student’s application.”
The document signaled racial objectives:
“FCPS expects that as a result of the changes, the student population at TJHSST will reflect more closely the diverse population in the jurisdictions from which students are eligible to apply for admission.”
There would be three pathways to TJ:
- Pathway 1: About 350 students would be selected from the top students on a scale of 400 points based on 100 points each for GPA, math test score, reading test score and science test score.
- Pathway 2: About 100 students would be selected with 50 percent of the evaluation based on GPA, math, science and reading test scores and 50 percent based on an evaluation of nine factors totaling 50 points. The factors were: socio-economic factors (7 points); regional data (zip code) (7 points; English Language Learning (7 points); special education (IEP) (7 points); extracurricular (3 points); community service (3 points); school leadership (8 points); STEM skills (top three awards/projects/skills) (3 points); “Hardship” (“Homelessness, economic responsibility, Extenuating Circumstances, family/personal crisis, 504, etc.
- Pathway 3: About 50 students would be selected from students nominated from “underrepresented” schools.
The document stated that only with “Pathway 2” would the school district “ensure” “racial/ethnic diversity.” It said: “Pathway 2 provides for intentional diversity.”
There wasn’t a consideration for these changes for the 2021-2022 school year. The “Implementation Timeline” was “Expected for the 2022-2023 Application Year.”
It underscored: “The application system will need to be ready for delivery in July of the year of implementation.”
Not weeks before implementation, as school board officials were about to do.
June 1, 2020 — Fairfax County Public Schools released Class of 2024 admissions data
On June 6, 2020, former TJ Student Government Association president Neil Kothari, a Class of 2019 graduate, published a column on Medium, arguing against “virtue signaling” in the effort to increase black and Hispanic students at TJ.
June 7, 2020, BlueVirginia, a blog for state Democrats, published an admissions chart without the explanation below it that the number of black students was “too small” to report without (for privacy reasons) and splashed a false headline on its website that “ZERO African Americans” had been granted admission to the Class of 2024.
That day, BlueVirginia repeated again the false data of “ZERO African-American students admitted” and published a “chat” with Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni and guided readers to “check out” language inserted into the 2020 state budget bill as paragraph 27(i) giving the Northam administration a vehicle for examining TJ admission.
June 7, 2020 — TJ Principal Ann Bonitatibus: ‘…we do not reflect the racial composition of FCPS.’ (Exhibit 45)
On June 7, 2020, at 8:44 p.m., TJ Principal Ann Bonitatibus sent TJ students and families an email outlining ideal racial objectives for TJ admissions:
She wrote: “First, our school is a rich tapestry of heritages; however, we do not reflect the racial composition in FOPS. Our 32 black students and 47 Hispanic students fill three classrooms. If our demographics actually represented FOPS, we would enroll 180 black and 460 Hispanic students, filling nearly 22 classrooms. The most recent TJ admissions trend, unfortunately, does not close the equity gap.”
June 8, 2020 — Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell: Raises issue of ‘diversity goals’ report to the governor (Exhibit 32)
On June 8, 2020, at 8:19 a.m., Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell wrote to board member Karen Corbett Sanders, copying Virginia Delegate Paul Krizek, raising the issue of TJ admissions.
“I saw the TJ admissions numbers after someone alerted me to an article a former TJ student wrote it.” [sic]
“The last state budget had the following language,” he said, copying language that the Virginia governor required a report with “diversity goals” for Academic Year Governor’s schools by October 1 of each year.”
He said: “I was curious where TJ was on this given that public meetings are required and there is a 10/1 deadline. I understand that the virus has slowed things down. When there are public meetings, I would like to provide testimony.”
Surovell wasn’t just “curious.” He had been trying to change admissions to TJ for years, in 2018 having a former teacher at Rachel Carson Middle School testify to the Virginia legislature about the toxicity of parents from India, pushing their children to TJ. Critics called her testimony xenophobic.
That day, at 12:24 p.m., Corbett Sanders responded:
Please be assured that I am as angry and disappointed in these numbers as you are. The previous board requested that the Superintendent bring to us a plan for addressing the equity in admissions issues for TJ. We have had some preliminary discussions but none of us were given forewarning about the numbers. I have just gotten off the phone with the Superintendent for the second time over the weekend about this issue and have had conversations with Secretary Qarni, I believe that there will be intentful action forthcoming and I will keep you both posted.”
June 8, 2020 — FCPS said six black students were accepted.
In response to a query from Corbett Sanders, FCPS official John Torre said six black students were admitted in the class of 2024. The email was redacted but the number was revealed in another email.
June 15, 2020 — Karen Corbett Sanders: ‘Admissions data…unacceptable,’ with ‘less than 2% of the admitting class being black’
On June 15, 2021, Corbett Sanders wrote to Brabrand, copying the other school board members, and said: “As you know the admissions data for the TJ class of 2024 is unacceptable, with less than 2% of the admitting class being black, a decrease year over year.”
She added: “I would also like to have an update on the civil rights complaint pending on TJ.”
She continued: “Going forward: | know that you are in the process of considering how you will respond to the Legislature’s requirement to provide a diversity plan by October 1, 2020. Can you make sure that the plan includes quantifiable measures, dates by which they will be achieved and information on how you will review the plan to make refinements as necessary? It would be great if we could have a board member participating in this planning.”
“Thanks for your help in this matter. | am very concerned that we needed to be explicit in how we are going to address the under-representation. There is a lot of information on social media which seems to indicate that we may be having protests in front of the school in the fall. promised ‘intentful action.’”
Brabrand: Not “sure” ‘diversity’ report would impact TJ funding
In his deposition for the case, Brabrand said he wasn’t “sure” the diversity plan would impact state funding for TJ.
Brabrand said: “I’m not sure, affect State funding. I didn’t think it was going to — I didn’t think it was going to cut off our funding. But I did think that depending on what we submitted to our report, you know, that the General Assembly can and has made budget changes to our funding on many things over time. So I wasn’t indifferent to what we were submitting on the October 1 report, knowing that it would be having a review by State officials.”
June 10, 2020 — TJ parent: Called for Bonitatibus resignation
Two days later, on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, at 9:28 p.m., a parent e-mailed the 12 school board members and said: “I feel deeply disturbed after reading the principal’s Message on 6/7.”
The parent continued: “As TJ principal, to question our public school system’s racial composition and TJ’s admission fairness to all students in such a sensitive time is such a political motive. She is going to destroy TJ’s STEM foundation and initiatives. I lost faith in her totally, and I urge you to demand her resignation.”
On Friday, June 12, 2020, Ricardy Anderson responded that she supported Bonitatibus. “Her call to action for us to examine our thinking and most importantly the results of efforts, whether they are to support or suppress, should be lauded. I for one, deeply respect her willingness to address what many consider a controversial topic in FCPS.”
Ignoring the fact that most of TJ students are “students of color,” Anderson wrote: “As a person of color, I am outraged we haven’t engaged our community in this assessment and examination robustly enough to lead to actionable steps that address the reasons our students of color and of socio-economic disadvantage are consistently locked out of opportunity — including but not limited to admissions to TJ. I am dismayed our students of color are ushered through various mazes of low expectations while throwing our hands in the air as if to conclude there is little we can do to combat the long standing issues which created the current inequities. I believe the time to act has long passed and I am unable to conclude that her message is anything other than overdue.”
June 18, 2020 — Karen Keys-Gamarra cites ‘what has happened to George Floyd’
At a June 18, 2020, board meeting, Keys-Gamarra said, “But in looking at what has happened to George Floyd, we now know that our shortcomings are far too great. So we must recognize the unacceptable numbers of such things as the unacceptable numbers of African Americans that have been accepted to TJ. ”
She continued: “We have to recognized that is a manifestation of problems within our system, and we have to have greater access and opportunity to advanced academics, to affordable housing, to economic opportunities. And so we have to clean our own house.”
Starting June 24, 2020, Qarni started quietly meeting with the “task force” of Democratic lawmakers, state education officials, the TJ principal and others to chart ways to increase the numbers of blacks, Hispanics and economically poor students gaining admission to TJ.
Fall 2020 — Stella Pekarsky: ‘We have made a lot of assumptions’
Abrar Omeish wrote: “Okay so the problem we have is access, right? I don’t ‘think [sic] the actual process is how we fix it either way.”
“We could have even kept the tests.”
“The outreach/awareness thing matters so much more in my mind.”
“Which is where the school-based thing comes in.”
“And the universal screening thing comes in.”
Stella Pekarsky responded: “Is it? We have an application problem. We haven’t bothered to ask people why they don’t apply.”
The answer: “Right exactly.”
Pekarsky said: “We have made lots of assumptions.”
The response: “Stella people have no clue.”
“Yes that is very fair.”
“We are building on assumptions built on assumptions.”
Pekarsky wrote: “Correct.”
The response from Omeish: “So in that case why not just leave it to families to decide? Lol.”
“If their kids meet our criteria.”
Pekarsky said: “Because why have a TJ?”
The answer from Omeish: “Hahaha.”
“I dare you to even bring that up.”
Pekarsky answered: “Haha.”
The answer from Omeish: “Hmmm.”
“Hahahah you should!”
“Lol there are a good number of people I’ve spoken with who have asked me that actually.”
July 8, 2020 — Growing impatience, while parents are left in the dark
July 8, 2020, while parents knew nothing about the admissions changes planned, Karen Corbett Sanders wrote to Brabrand and Shughart and said: “Given the number of emails that we are getting re TJ Admissions, can someone please answer my questions below?”
By Aug. 6, 2020, Corbett Sanders had grown impatient with the superintendent.
She wrote to board member Ricardy Anderson and said: “I humbly ask that after Scott responding twice before that he would have Jeremy respond to my emails in June and July, I have been incredibly patient and given the grace appropriate to the request. As you know, I was instrumental in putting this on the agenda in September. I had yet another call from a constituent about these concerns yesterday.”
Aug. 11, 2020 — AP’s Matt Barakat published first article on the Virginia Education Secretary’s meetings over TJ admissions.
After Brabrand backed down from a plan to institute a “merit lottery” admissions, parents were shocked. Sure enough, by mid-September 2020 as mostly Asian, mostly immigrant parents held protests over the admissions changes, Corbett Sanders advised Superintendent Brabrand in a late Friday afternoon email to “reframe the discussion” and “clarify that we have a statutory requirement to submit a plan.”
Sept. 14, 2020 — Elaine Tholen: ‘we were not able to work on this the way that we should have’
On Monday, Sept. 14, 2020,, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand unveiled a new “merit lottery” admissions process for TJ.
That day, at 10:04 p.m., Elaine Tholen asked Brabrand about his plans for “community input.” She acknowledged that “we were not able to able to work on this the way that we should have.”
At 2:34 a.m., on Sept. 15, 2020, Brabrand assured he had “at least 1 town hall planned,” along with a town hall with the TJ Partnership Fund and another town hall led by the Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni. He said he asked Qarni for a one-week extension to Oct. 9, 2020, for his diversity report, and “he granted it.”
Sept. 17, 2020 — Board member: ‘substantive holes’ in plan
On Sept. 17, 2020, at 2:54 p.m., an unknown board member sent Elaine Tholen a text message, saying: “This is what I sent Abrar yesterday about TJ Admissions: ‘I see it differently. The state asked for a plan. We can comply with a plan of action & still refine the plan with careful Board deliberation on important details re: the new lottery (including Countywide, Regional or Pyramid) and including both GPA & Course Work details. I remain very concerned that while this new Goal to improve TJ is very good, the existing plan (that came out just 2hrs b4 our meeting) has substantive holes.”
September 2020 — Rachna Sizemore Heiser ‘troubled’ by short notice of proposal
In a text message, Rachna Sizemore Heiser said that “transparency and authentic community engagement are paramount to ensuring public trust in government.”
Thus, she wrote:
“Therefore, I am troubled that the School Board (and the public) only received Supt Brabrand’s proposal a few hours before our September 15th work session. This prevented board members from carefully examining the merits & challenges of his proposal, prior to our public discussion and deliberation. Given the Board concluded its public meeting with over 20 ‘Next Step’ questions, I do not support the adoption of his current proposed changes by October 8th.”
Sept. 19, 2020: Board member insisting that the proposal was ” not eliminating merit but rather reframing our understanding of merit.”
By Friday, Sept. 19, 2020, it was clear the proposal was a disaster.
That morning, school board member Karen Corbett Sanders met with Scott Brabrand, trying to salvage his plan. She reiterated her points later that day in an email she sent at 3:05 p.m., to the other eleven school board members and Brabrand, insisting the board needed to “reframe the discussion,” insisting that the school district had a “statutory requirement” due on Oct. 9, 2020, that it was “not eliminating merit but rather reframing our understanding of merit.”
“As I mentioned to you this morning, the plan released on Monday has caused confusion in the community because of the over-reliance on the term lottery vs. merit. Communications of what we are doing is critical. Additionally, the timing of the presentation is misunderstood in the community. As we discussed, I think it is essential that we reframe the discussion and offer clarity to the community about our way forward. I have spoken with many of my colleagues (ccd above) about this prior to yesterday’s meeting or today. I will continue to reach out to others. As _ mentioned, we really have 4 pillars of what must be done to create a diverse and inclusive environment at TJ which preserves its commitment to excellence in the sciences. These pillars should be incorporated into the plan submitted to the state in early October.
1. Clarify that we have a statutory requirement to submit a plan to the state by 9 October. We do not have a requirement to conduct a test in the fall for spring admissions. Frankly, a delay of the admissions process until after the 2nd quarter would allow for you and the team to ensure all of the pieces are in place to make this a successful process and not one that would be incremental by just eliminating the test and the recommendation which is causing much of the angst and rhetoric about undermining the quality of education at TJ. This timeframe is consistent with that used for universities where students apply for college admissions in January.
2. The plan submitted should include 4 pillars: Admissions, Supports for Students once admitted, ensuring the pipeline is based on opportunity and access for all, and a review of the process with possible tweaks as necessary.
She presented four options. The top two “pillars” were:
1. In the approach to admissions to TJ we need to be clear we are not eliminating merit but rather reframing our understanding of merit, similar to the manner in which 1000 universities, including communicate how we are identifying students with the highest aptitude in STEM vs test capabilities in this process. Elimination of the test does not preclude a review of a students’ application to demonstrate merit based on a student statement, a demonstration of problem solving, and a review of transcripts to include a minimum GPA, Algebra in 8th grade, and possibly a panel review/interview. Once the initial screen is done, then the lottery occurs. To ensure that the demonstration of problem solving piece is fair, I would ask select college professors at different universities to develop the question annually. Additionally, it will be important to better communicate why a geographic distribution of students across the county will result in a change in demographics to include more students that are FRM, ELL, black, Hispanic, or twice exceptional.
2. It is essential that we communicate that reframing how we assess merit in admissions does not mean that we compromise rigor in the academic programming at TJ. We will need to continue to have a summer boot camp for admitted students to prepare for the rigor. However, it is also essential that we provide supports for a more diverse population at TJ. This includes not only the introduction of the robust anti-bias, anti-hate curriculum for all students, but it means having the social emotional and academic supports for the more diverse student body which may not have large cohorts which can lead to feelings of isolation.
Corbett Sanders went on to itemize additional points.
The next morning, on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, at 10:36 a.m., Corbett Sanders responded: “As an FYI, it is not the timing of the work session that is energizing the community. It is the timing of looking at TJ. Suggest that we make it clear that we’re responding to a statutory mandate.”
At 11:27 a.m., Corbett Sanders repeated her points.
At 2:55 p.m., Brabrand responded simply: “Understood- thanks.”
Sept. 22, 2020 – Rachna Sizemore Heizer: ‘Control the narrative….”
By Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, Rachna Sizemore Heizer wasn’t satisfied with the media strategy. She sent an email to the superintendent Brabrand, FCPS chief operating officer Marty Smith and chief communications officer John Torre, with the subject line, “TJ admissions and the media.”
She wrote: “…I think we need some strategic communication and stronger talking points around TJ admissions….” She added: “I suggest we frame it on increasing diversity through redefining merit rather than through just a lottery.” She ended: “I respectfully suggest we do more to control the narrative….”
Torre had a solution: a “town hall.” Also, he said the school also had a communications contractor, Yes&, based in Alexandria, Virginia, “working on a more strategic response.” The communications consultant is run by a mostly-white staff.
Parents Defending Education has submitted a FOIA request for the records of contracts with Yes&. The public was not notified of this consulting work.
Sept. 23, 2020: Brabrand admonished parents who engage in “pay-to-play” at town hall meeting
Transcript of the video
At 53:18, Brabrand said: “And some people can spend thousands and thousands of dollars, and some not a drop.
At 57:37, Brabrand said about the race-blind admissions test to TJ: “….the final decision maker on who gets in and who doesn’t, is a standardized admissions test, where you can pay-to-play and get a good score that lets you get in versus some who cannot.”
Undated: Stella Pekarsky: ‘FEAR is seeing a flawed, rushed plan’
Board member Stella Pekarsky wrote: “They are both now falsely deflecting about HS educational opportunities. I imagine we have parents screaming right now. ARGH!”
Another board member responded: “I know.”
Pekarsky answered: “In response to Jeremy: FEAR is seeing a flawed, rushed plan…not ‘fear of change’. The standardized test isn’t the only complaint…. Scott is so myopic,” adding an emoji with its eyes rolling.
Pekarsky added: “Yes caller, the lottery is flawed!”
She continued: “Omg!! it is rushed when you cobble together a proposal w/only 3 weeks to review & NO prior stakeholder input to inform it!”
Unknown date: Rachna Sizemore Heizer said Karen Keys Gamara ‘implied we are racist’
Rachna Sizemore Heizer sent a text message to an unnamed board member: “I don’t know if what I said was okay or not ok but I tried to be clear.”
The board member responded: “It was very diplomatic & appropriate.”
Sizemore Heizer said: “Thank you. I’m sure [sic] made people angry but after KKG implied we are racist I was upset.”
The board member responded: “You did the right thing,” adding a heart emoji. “6 of us don’t want lottery. He doesn’t have 7+ who want lottery.”
Sizemore Heizer said: “We just lost Melanie out of the meeting.”
Sept. 27, 2020 — Fairfax County Public Schools’ Lidi Hruda: Cites ‘gut’ to ‘level the playing field’ with more ‘bonus points’ for ‘Experience Factors’
On Monday, Sept. 27, 2020, at 4:51 p.m., Shughart emailed Lidi Hruda, director of the Office of Research and Strategic Improvement, copying Marty Smith, the school district’s chief operating officer, with a draft of “our alternate white paper proposal for admissions.”
He asked: “Could you look specifically at the table for ‘Experience Factors’ and provide us a review of our current weighting and whether or not this would be enough to level the playing field for our historically underrepresented groups.”
School district attorneys then redacted the next sentence with “Attorney-Client Privilege.”
In his deposition, Shughart said, “Racial groups would have been included….”
To the question of which racial groups specifically are underrepresented, Shughart said, “…the students that were lower would have been black and Hispanic.”
In its motion, the Coalition for TJ argued: “They left no doubt that race was the primary factor.”
The attached proposal included the following “Evaluation elements” for admission to TJ:
- Core GPA: 200 points
- Student Portrait Sheet (previously Student Information Sheet): 400 points
- Problem-Solving Essay: 500 points
- Maximum total: 1,100 points
- “Experience Factors” that would be “bonus points” in the process: 200 points for Fairfax County Public Schools students/150 points for participating jurisdictions. They would be: English Language Learners (50 points); Economically Disadvantaged (50 points) Special Education (50 points); Historically underrepresented school (50 points).
- Maximum total: 200 points (or 15% of total possible points)
The document said, “Experience Factors will be considered bonus points in the evaluation process.”
That night, at 9:46 p.m., Sept. 27, 2020, Hruda emailed Shughart, copying Smith, writing, “It is hard to know what exactly will level the playing field but my gut says that you may need to double all the points (and the total) so the applicants can receive up to 200 points overall for these experience factors.”
In the email Hruda wrote that two portions of the TJ application — the Student Information Sheet and essay –had “historically favored White and Asian candidates.”
She wrote: “That leaves only the Experience Factors to help shift the landscape and bring more diversity into play and acceptance of historically underrepresented students. Since the Experience Factors include things that some more privileged students area likely to get points on, as well as factors that less privileged students are likely to to get points on, I think we can assume that the potential advantage from the Experience Factors is likely to be, at most, 50 points and more likely only 25 points for most students, since they are not likely to get credit for all the experience factors. Not meaning that they get 25-50 points but they get maybe 50-75 points, while more privileged students are getting 25, netting a 25-50 point bump for those less privileged.”
Then she wrote:
“Whether 25 or 50 points, that means the gap coming out of the first three pieces would need to be in that range to balance things. I think you will find that the gap is broader than that and that the bump is from the Experience Factors will be insufficient to make up for the difference.”
She concluded: “Maybe I am being too pessimistic and, undoubtedly, some might argue that providing students with a 50 to 100 point advantage from the Experience Factors is inappropriate. Nonetheless my gut says the 25 to 50 point advantage a non-privileged student might gain from the Experience Factors will not level the field given the three other parts of the process.”
Early into the next day, at 2:14 a.m., on Sept. 28, 2020, Shughart responded to Hruda’s analysis, saying, “I agree that we need to consider how this will be considered and whether there was enough weighting involved. The maximum amount of points you received would only be around 14%, so it isn’t impacting at a very high level. I wasn’t sure if doubling the points would have been to [sic] much weight but your points are very valid in perspective that most students won’t receive all points but a portion and for it to make an impact you would need to have an increased capacity.”
Translation: An “increased capacity” meant a bigger bump in the “bonus points.”
In its motion, the Coalition for TJ argued: “A scoring rubric including 200 points for Experience Factors—following Hruda’s advice—was presented to the Board at the October 6 closed session before the vote to eliminate the admissions exam.”
Sept. 29, 2020 – Abrar Omeish: ‘Greater Equity,’ Not ‘Equality‘
In the early morning of Sept. 29, 2020, at 6:21 a.m., school board member Abrar Omeish wrote to her colleagues on the school board and said, “.…the data is abundantly clear that offering a test of any form is untenable,” putting it in bold face for emphasis. Board members had not said anything publicly about removing the test.
She continued: “To be clear, I plan to support the proposal towards greater equity, to be clearly distinguished from equality, that best supports our disenfranchised students without serving as an insult to their capabilities.”
She concluded: “I remind my colleague [sic] that, regardless of what we do, the VA Department of Education will be leading us toward equity here soon enough.”
Oct. 2, 2021 — Megan McLaughlin: ‘Dr. Brabrand has created a false urgency’
In an email to a constituent on Oct. 2, 2020, at 12:43 a.m., Megan McLaughlin wrote: “As a former Georgetown Admissions Officer and social worker, I strongly believe in the importance of ensuring equity of opportunity for all students. However, Dr. Brabrand has created a false urgency that FCPS must drastically overhaul the TJ Admissions process within a three week decision-making window. Taking premature action will be a disservice to all students and our Commonwealth.”
Meanwhile, board member Elaine Tholen forwarded to board colleague Pekarsky an email from a TJ parent who said that she had talked to the Virginia Department of Education and was told that the plan submitted to the state could be “aspirational” and “general” and there was “no mandate for Governor’s Schools to produce a more diverse population.”
Fall 2020: Board members Abrar Omeish to Stella Pekarsky: ‘Talking about pay to play and crap. So racist’
In a text exchange, school board member Abrar Omeish and Stella Pekarsky discussed how “racist” the process had been in Fairfax County Schools against the “immigrant perspective,” not only on TJ admissions but also the remaining of an elementary school.
Pekarsky wrote: “Talking about pay to play and crap. So racist.”
She continued: “I told him repeatedly he was pathetically off base with the cultural aspect he was missing.”
She noted: “Not everyone is black and white.”
She concluded: “The immigrant perspective isn’t the American black one or the American white one.”
Omeish responded simply: “Totally.”
She added: “That’s how we get Mae Jamison or bust lol.”
On June 18, 2020, school board members Karl Frisch and Karen Keys Gamara had introduced a plan to rename Mosby Woods Elementary School, alleging that it was an insensitive name, honoring a Confederate soldier, Col. Mosby.
On Feb. 16, 2021, the school board hosted a meeting to discuss additional names including: Patsy Mink, an Asian American who was the first “woman of color” elected to the U.S. Congress, and Mae Jamison, the first black woman astronaut to go to space.
Pekarsky, “So I’m kind of tired of this division. Everything is about American black and white.”
Frisch had advocated for Jamison, the black astronaut, over Mink, the Asian American lawmaker.
“Even though, on the website, Patsy Mink got many more votes,” the board member said. “Mae got 2, I think.”
Omeish responded: “Woah really??!!!!”
She continued: “I wish I knew that.”
“Karl lied to me on that yet again.”
“I didn’t know where to look.”
“That’s crazy Stella he lied.”
In a text, school board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer defended Brabrand, but revealed the racial motivation behind the changes, writing, “If anything I think he’s trying to be responsive to the times – BLM and a superprogressive board.”
Fall 2020: Board member Stella Pekarsky: Brabrand ‘screwed up TJ and the Asians hate us.” Abrar Omeish: Thought he was ‘just dumb and too white’
Board member Abrar Omeish wrote a text message, “If you believe in this thing how can you cave all of a sudden.”
Board member Stella Pekarsky responded, “Brabrand believes in getting attention. This is how he screwed up TJ and the Asians hate us.”
Omeish responded: “You think so? You think it’s deliberate?”
Pekarsky answered: “Came right out of the gate blaming them.”
Indeed, in a virtual town hall meeting in August 2020 with Sujatha Hampton, the education chair of the Fairfax NAACP, Brabrand admonished the parents at TJ — who are mostly Asian and mostly immigrant — for allegedly spending “thousands and thousands of dollars” on preparation for the TJ admissions test. He never provided evidence of his claim.
Omeish responded, “I thought he was just dumb and too white to bet it,” correcting her “bet” typo to “*get,” so that her message would have had this not-subtle message: I thought he was just dumb and too white to get it.
Oct. 6, 2020 — Karen Corbett Sanders: ‘All agree on the elimination of the test’
In an email to board members, Corbett Sanders and Pekarsky wrote that the board was “getting numerous emails re: TJ admissions,” and they wanted to “re-center our discussion.”
Without the public even knowing that eliminating the test was on the table, Corbett Sanders and Pekarsky wrote an email to school board members and Brabrand, outlining a plan, with “TJ Admissions Proposal” in the subject line.
Top of the list: “All agree on the elimination of the test and application fees.”
That day, Oct. 6, 2020, at 4:56 p.m., while recovering from dental work, school board member Melanie Meren told Corbett Sanders, “I am not ok with the rushed situation we are in, and there don’t support massive changes at this time.”
She said she’d send the email separately to Pekarsky.
On Oct. 6, 2020, at a “school board work session,” Fairfax County Public Schools issued a “merit lottery proposal.” The proposal included “Transition resources for students,” with “Social and Emotional supports” and a “lesson on social-emotional learning.”
Oct. 6, 2020 – Scott Brabrand: ‘ Can we go back and look at points – would 200 points be a game changer.”
On Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, at 7 p.m., Scott Brabrand sent an email, with the subject line, “Modeling and experience factors,” to Jeremy Shughart, Marty Smith and school district general counsel John Foster and asked: “Marty in old day with points – would 200 points change who got in- that is the modeling that they are asking about [sic]”
He then wrote: “Can we go back and look at points – would 200 points be a game changer [sic]”
The email was marked: “Sent from my iPhone”
A minute later, at 7:01 p.m., Shughart wrote, “We don’t currently use any points in the process. I would have to go back to the previous process (over 8 years ago) to see how it would impact.”
At 7:03 p.m., Brabrand asked, “How hard would that be to do?”
Shughart responded: “I would need to look at old data files. 200 points or 50 points would make a difference. I don’t know how that impacts our diversity.”
Oct. 8, 2020 — FCPS official Sloan Presidio: ‘…we have enough Black and Hispanic…students…to fill an entire TJ class’
On Oct. 8. 2020, at 4:04 p.m., Fairfax County Public Schools official Sloan Presidio wrote to Fairfax County board member Abrar Omeish and said: “We don’t really have a pipeline issue because we have enough Black and Hispanic 8th grade Level 4 students (the most rigorous program we have in elementary and middle school) to fill an entire TJ class.”
In the exchange of emails, Presidio tried to argue that the school district did not have a “pipeline” issue and in fact had “enough Black and Hispanic” students in the highest Advanced Academic Program Level IV available to students “to fill an entire TJ class.”
Late that afternoon, Omeish called Presidio, as they readied for a school board meeting at which they would move forward to eliminate the admissions test.
Presidio then wrote to her: “…we have enough Black and Hispanic students taking Geometry by Grade 8 to fill almost half the incoming TJ class.”
The email was accompanied by a chart titled “2019-2020 FCPS Middle School Access to Advanced Mathematics.” The chart shows advanced mathematics for FCPS eighth graders broken down by race. Geometry, the greatest indicator of a student’s successful admission application to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, revealed the following:
Total # in Grade 8: 14,303 # Taking Geom. or Higher (broken down by race:
All Students: 1916
Econ. Dis. 114
Presidio wrote: “This, the issue must be how we’re using the TJ admission test…” and “the best way to create more diversity is to change the admission process and test specifically. And, we can’t eliminate the current test and just replace it with another test or quasi-test like a problem-solving essay that is used in the same way as the current test (i.e., to be a barrier to semi-finalist selection).”
Unknown date — Rachna Sizemore Heizer says Brabrand ‘responsive to the times – BLM and a super progressive board’
In an undated text exchange, Rachna Sizemore Heizer debated the policy of lotteries at schools with someone not identified.
She wrote about Brabrand: “If I anything I think he’s trying to be responsive to the times – BLM and a super progressive board.”
The other person gave the comment a thumbs-up emoji and responded: “Right.”
“He is trying to be responsive.”
“But where are the brains to get it right.”
Sizemore Heiser answered: “I disagree.”
The other person said: “And the innovation.”
“Like the thorough analysis.”
“Idk,” meaning “I don’t know.”
Sizemore Heiser wrote: “Other schools have gone to lottery and that’s what he’s looking at.”
The other person said: “Yeah Ik.”
“He listed the ones with that.”
“The Sec of Ed recommended a more nuanced plan.”
Unknown date — Stella Pekarsky texted Abrar Omeish proposal ‘will whiten our schools and kick our [sic] Asians’; Omeish said ‘there has been an anti asian feel…lol’
In an undated text message, Abrar Omeish wrote: “I honestly don’t think these plans are where the real problem is –it’s on the school level.”
Stella Pekarsky (in gray) said: “It will whiten our schools and kick our [sic] Asians. How is that achieving the goals of diversity?”
Omeish responded with “!!.”
Omeish then wrote: “I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol.”
“Of course it is. Which is why I always told people talking about TJ is a stupid waste of tome [sic]. It’s about making a political point.”
This received a thumbs up response from Pekarsky…and a response of “They’re discriminated against in this process too”
Pekarsky answered: “I know, and Scott has made it obvious. Before he went down this path, I told him to stop it and never talk about ‘pay to play, etc.’ It is very demeaning.”
This received 2 !! in response from Pekarsky.
Pekarsky continued “And it’s a cultural issue. He ignored me haha.”
Omeish wrote: “Of course he did. I mean I get that – and a lot of them can’t afford it anyway. But they make choices, I remember one girl I worked with who was literally in public housing.”
Pekarsky said: “But they also prioritize education. In fact, they make huge sacrifices.”
This received a thumbs up response from Omeish, who added “I guess they’re just so few. Yes for sure.”
Pekarsky added: “And we have to honor that. You go annoy make people feel like their kids will lose out because they work hard to priorotize education in their families responded: “I don’t think the others don’t, but it may actually be a social issue of coming to recognize its importance.
Oct. 8, 2020 — Megan McLaughlin: Brabrand misled the board in ‘shameful leadership’
At 9:46 p.m., on the night of Oct. 8, 2020, Megan McLaughlin wrote to school board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, saying: “FYI: I sent this to Abrar. I may read parts of it tonight but w/o the public shaming remarks about staff: ‘Sadly, Scott has personally created a highly divisive, harmful public debate that was absolutely avoidable. He incorrectly told this Board (and the public) that we needed to make a rushed/unvetted decision by October 12th. That’s ineffective (if not shameful) leadership. I am proud of our Board for responsibly requesting important data + data analysis…”
That weekend, Oct. 18, 2020, Coalition for TJ members held a “memorial” for TJ.
Friday, Nov. 13, 2020 – Julie Fowler sent Jeremy Shughart and Lidi Hruda ‘Scoring Rubric’
On Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, at 10:17 a.m., Julie Fowler, manager of business operations in the chief operating office of the school district, send an email, with the subject line, “Rubric,” to Jeremy Shughart and Lidi Hruda, and asked simply, “Please see the attached. Work?”
Attached was a two-page document marked, “TJHSST Scoring Rubric.”
Fairfax County Public Schools: ‘TJHSST Scoring Rubric’
In an undated document, titled “TJHSST Scoring Rubric” and marked with a “CONFIDENTIAL” watermark, the school district laid out a rubric that the TJ admissions director, Shugart, had told a parent was “proprietary.”
The secret formula was very much what Shugart and Hruda had negotiated, with a greater number of points to the “bonus points.”
There was a base section, “Application Elements.”
- GPA = 300 points
- Student Portrait Sheet = 300 points
- Problem Solving Essay = 300 points
- Maximum total = 900 points
Then, there was another section, “Experience Factors,” described literally as “(bonus points).”
(An “IEP” is an Individualized Educational Plan that is developed for students who receive special education services.)
- “Economically Disadvantaged (Students who have qualified for free and reduced price meals.” = 90 points
- English Language Learners (Students receiving ELL services Level 1-6 will qualify.) = 45 points
- Special Education (Students with a current IEP will qualify.) = 45 points
- Underrepresented Schools = 45 points
- Maximum total = 225 points (or 20% of total maximum 1,125 points)
A minute later, at 10:10 a.m., on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, Shugart responded, “Yes but the total points will be 1,000 points as the experience facts are treated as bonus.”
At 3:56 p.m. that same day, Fowler wrote back, “Can’t say I understand the difference but how’s this?”
Attached was “Scoring Rubric v2.”
In this version, the “Application Elements” were increased, with the GPA losing value:
- GPA = 200 points (instead of 300 points)
- Student Portrait Sheet = 400 points (instead 300 points)
- Problem Solving Essay = 400 points (instead of 300 points)
Maximum total = 1,000 points
“The Experience Factors (bonus points)” increased to 250 points (from 225 points) with a new calculation:
- “Economically Disadvantaged (Students who have qualified for free and reduced price meals.” = 100 points (instead of 90 points)
- English Language Learners (Students receiving ELL services Level 1-6 will qualify.) = 50 points (from 45 points)
- Special Education (Students with a current IEP will qualify.) = 50 points (from 45 points)
- Underrepresented Schools = 50 points (from 45 points)
Maximum total = 250 points (or 20% of total maximum 1,250 points)
Dec. 17, 2020 — Megan McLaughlin: ‘tonight’s embarrassing process’
That night, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020, at 11:08 p.m., school board member Megan McLaughlin wrote to a constituent: “I share your deep disappointment. In my 9 years, I cannot recall a messier execution of Board-level work. I feel Supt Brabrand’s flawed operational proposals have greatly contributed to tonight’s embarrassing process.”
Asra Q. Nomani is This column has been republished with permission from Asra Investigates.