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Spotsylvania superintendent’s vote shows how packed school meetings have become

Within five minutes of the start of the school board meeting on Friday night, several board members were yelling at each other. Within five minutes, a member of the jury’s attempt to speak was repeatedly interrupted by another member. saying out loud, “That’s disgusting” and “Shame on you” and “Shame, shame, shame”.

Chaos ensued when the Spotsylvania County School Board met for one of its most important decisions: choosing the next head of Virginia’s public schools district. And that summed up a sea change at many such meetings across the country, where once sleepy, well-behaved procedural meetings have become flashpoints for communities polarized on cultural issues such as parental rights. and transgender.

The deeply divided board voted on Friday to offer a superintendent contract after several weeks of unrest, including several volatile meetings.

The decision to offer Mark Taylor the job at top schools came a day after some parents raised concerns about what they said were questionable social media posts by the candidate at a Virginia meeting. Board of Education this week. The board was considering licensing Taylor, who lacks educational experience but has been promoted by some supporters as a proven leader with a keen business sense.

Earlier this week, the county sheriff’s office announced that after mid-October it will no longer send deputies to provide security at school board meetings.

Last fall, the acting head of the National School Boards Association asked for help from the federal government to provide protection at local school meetings, citing threats and disruptions that had been reported across the country. The group quickly apologized for this action, emphasizing the importance of local control, and replaced its management. But the kinds of events that had raised concern – extreme language, threats and physical altercations – continued to disrupt communities as the pandemic and cultural divisions intensified.

Activist parents, seeking to control education, take control of school boards

In Spotsylvania, the hotly contested search for the superintendent began this year after the longtime schools leader was abruptly fired by a board that included a new bloc of members, a move many saw as a symbol of growing influence parents advocating for a greater voice at school. the decisions.

The new majority led to several 4-3 votes.

They are true to their mandate and to their religious and political convictions, Nicole Cole, a member of the majority bloc’s board of directors, said on Saturday by telephone. “It’s a wall on their side.”

Board members Rabih Abuismail, Lisa A. Phelps, April Gillespie, the vice chair, and Kirk Twigg, the chair, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

This week has been particularly intense. People gathered for a board meeting on Monday, with some having to stand, others holding up notepads with messages when they wanted to object without disrupting the meeting, according to a board member. administration, some boos when people tried to make public comments were cut off by the board.

On Wednesday, the sheriff announced that deputies would no longer be involved in routine security at meetings.

Spotsylvania Sheriff Roger L. Harris wrote in a letter to board members that the department would still respond to emergencies, but that “…our deputies have on many occasions been put in a position to siding with one or more members, regarding “disruptive” citizens. .”

Harris and a department spokesperson did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Saturday.

“I’m worried because I had reason to be afraid,” because of the threats made against her on the board, Cole said. “TO [the] At the same time, I’m also glad the sheriff took that position,’ she said, because deputies shouldn’t be there to stop people from speaking out at a public meeting.

On Thursday, Taylor’s supporters and critics traveled to Richmond where the Virginia Board of Education was considering granting Taylor a division superintendent license.

Rich Lieberman, a parent who campaigned unsuccessfully for one of the school board seats last fall, said Taylor had posted things on social media that were racist and homophobic and opposed to public schools.

“My child deserves better,” Lieberman said in a phone interview Saturday. “All the children of Spotsylvania deserve better.”

Taylor did not immediately return requests for comment on Saturday. In a interview with ABC-7 News this week, Taylor said he hadn’t seen the posts in question, so he couldn’t tell the reporter whether or not they were him. He said he would never knowingly or intentionally post anything racist, saying: ‘It’s not my value system. I do not believe it.

He said parents should have a bigger voice in schools and have choice over how their children are educated.

Laurie Szymanski, a substitute teacher, said at the state board meeting that Taylor had been slandered and her character murdered. She praised his positive track record as a county administrator, his intelligence and his commitment to transparency. “His accomplishments are a testament to his ability to provide the leadership and results that Spotsylvania needs right now,” she said.

The state board voted Thursday to grant the license.

On Friday, Spotsylvania school board member Cole sparked an argument at the board meeting as she tried to read aloud an email she said was from one of Taylor’s daughters, writing that he was unfit for work due to his opposition to public schools, lack of experience and religious and political agenda – and that he was only considered due to his close friendship with the President of the council. The letter also criticized the homeschooling the woman said she received from Taylor.

The minority block of board members tried to adjourn the meeting, but were outvoted.

The vote on the contract was taken: Four against three.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.