by Dick Hall-Sizemore
When Glenn Youngkin was elected Governor in 2021, largely on a platform of “parental rights” in schools, a national movement seemed to have been born. In Virginia, and elsewhere, school board meetings were packed with fervent citizens shouting at the board members and at each other about banning books in school libraries and classrooms, LGBTQ policies, and other issues. Law enforcement had to be called in to keep order.
With the last election, that movement seems to have lost momentum. Nationally, Democrats won school board elections in many key districts and candidates backed by progressive groups did well. Moms for Liberty, one of the leading “parental rights” groups, lost some of the ground it had won two years earlier. The group pushed back against claims that voters were rejecting its platform, saying that 40 percent of the candidates it had endorsed won, although that hardly seems like a case that its agenda is winning. Furthermore, it quickly took down its list of endorsed candidates from its website, thereby making it impossible to verify even this claim.
Because Virginia does not allow party identification of school board candidates on the ballot, it is more difficult to ascertain from a distance which party is in the majority on a specific board. However, parties do endorse, or voice support for, specific candidates and some candidates declare their party affiliation in their campaign materials. Therefore, based on media reports, it is possible to determine which parties or ideologies prevailed in some elections.
Judging from the information readily available, the results in the Commonwealth were a little more mixed than in the nation, although in those areas in which there had been the most controversy, the Youngkin agenda lost. By most accounts, Loudoun County has been the epicenter of the “parental rights” revolt. Perhaps worn out by the controversy, seven of the nine incumbents chose not to run for re-election. The other two incumbents lost their re-election bids. Nevertheless, in a large turnout, Democrats won six of the nine seats on the board. Next door, where the Fairfax County School Board also had been the subject of much criticism over the last four years, ranging from the entrance requirements for the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology to release of test scores, candidates endorsed by Democrats won all 12 seats.
Further south on I-95, the Spotsylvania County School Board had been embroiled in lots of controversy. Two of its members had advocated burning books. Meetings were chaotic. The new superintendent hired by the Board had ordered 37 books removed from school libraries. This month four seats were up for election. One of the book burners had resigned earlier. As reported by The Free-Lance Star, the other member who had advocated burning books and was the chair of the board was defeated decisively. A “parental rights” candidate running for another seat also lost. A member who had previously been in the minority and whose seat was not up for re-election this year, observed that the results meant that the county “will have a school board that works together toward the primary goal of what is in the best interest of Spotsylvania’s public school children.”
In contrast to bodies in other jurisdictions, the Henrico County School Board has largely avoided controversy. It has not adopted Governor Youngkin’s new guidelines for LGBTQ issues, but it has not loudly rejected them, either. At last report, it was “reviewing” the guidelines. At its August meeting, only three residents addressed the board on contentious issues—two urging the board to reject the new guidelines and one urging a ban on “sexually explicit” books. Nevertheless, the election results may mean a change in the board’s cautious approach. There were two open seats on the ballot, and Democratic-backed candidates captured both. (In fairness, all five of the candidates in the Fairfield District had the support of the Democrats.) Combined with the re-election of a Democrat-backed incumbent, members backed by Democrats will constitute a majority of the board next year. These results are more likely the result of the trend in Henrico politics than of discontent with the board.
According to the Henrico Citizen, a local newsletter, all the incoming Democratic members of the Henrico County School Board said they “would stand against implementing the VDOE’s 2023 model policies and against changing book removal policies during their campaigns.” Two of them said they would support allowing collective bargaining, while the other said she was “open” to the idea. They may get their opportunity on the latter issue fairly early in their term next year. At this month’s school board meeting, about a dozen teachers showed up, urging the board to allow collective bargaining.
Although they did not make the headlines that controversies in Northern Virginia did, school boards in other parts of the state saw their share of turmoil over the last few years as well. In 2022, the chair of the Montgomery County School Board reported that she had received death threats and her husband and children had been threatened. Cardinal News reported that the meeting of the Roanoke County School Board this past September was the “first Roanoke County School Board meeting in three months where an audience member wasn’t arrested by officers on the premises for disorderly conduct or trespassing.”
However, based on reporting by Cardinal News and elections results reported by the Virginia Department of Elections, conservatives did well in some of these districts. Bedford County had four school board seats up for election. Republicans won in all four races including beating an incumbent who had run unopposed in the last two elections. In 2019, all the candidates for the Pulaski County School Board had run unopposed. In 2023, each race had two opponents and Republicans endorsed a candidate in each one. Four of the five incumbent members ran for re-election. All lost to Republican-backed candidates. Only in the open seat contest did the Republican-endorsed candidate lose. In Roanoke County, although protesters had hotly protested (some so hotly that they were arrested) the Board’s decisions limiting pride-themed classroom décor and adopting the Youngkin administration’s new rules for transgender students, voters elected Republican-backed candidates in the two races for school board seats.
In Montgomery County, it was a different story. Although a conservative activist had once announced on Fox News, “We’re getting these liberals off of our school board,” the voters had other ideas. Four seats were on the ballot, three of them contested. Democrat-backed candidates won in all three contested races, although the winning margin was razor-thin in one race. The candidate endorsed by Moms for Liberty lost by 86 votes (less than one percentage point). In another race, the challenger, who had campaigned on restrictions on transgender students, lost by almost four percentage points.
Finally, further up the Valley, Republicans were victorious in the Rockingham County School Board races. The party had endorsed candidates running in two of the three races on the ballot and they won both races, beating one incumbent running for re-election in the process. One of the Republican winners was said by the Daily News-Record to have “campaigned to lobby for Republican party ideals and values,” among other issues. And you thought Republicans were against indoctrinating students.