ROCKY MOUNT — Franklin County School Board meetings have radically changed in character during the past few months, with lengthy, intense public comment sessions leading into heated debates over issues that are both politically and emotionally charged — such as whether kids should wear face masks, and whether critical race theory is being taught in the school system, even though school staff members repeatedly insist it is not.
These conflicts, in turn, have set the stage for what might be the most unusual school board election Franklin County has seen since the board first became an elected body in 1995.
In one contested race, Kevin David, a white doctor promoted by Republicans, has challenged the board’s only Black member, Penny Blue, for the countywide member-at-large seat, his efforts aided by a conservative activist group that has taken an interview Blue gave to a foreign news channel and tried to turn her own words against her.
In the other contested race, all three candidates are write-ins, including the Snow Creek District incumbent, G. B. Washburn. Washburn, who is white, faces two challengers, both Black. One, Carletta Whiting, supported by the same group helping David, recorded a promotional video for the National Rifle Association in 2020 watched by hundreds of thousands. The other, Gregory Maxwell, a self-described Republican running as an independent, is critical of Washburn’s votes against mask mandates.
Two more races are uncontested. Board Vice Chair Jeff Worley is running unopposed for his second term representing the Rocky Mount district. Newcomer Dawn McCray is running unopposed in the Boone District, replacing former Vice Chair Donna Cosmato, who chose not to seek re-election.
All the candidates but Whiting and McCray are Franklin County natives and graduates of the county high school. McCray and Whiting have Southwest Virginia ties.
Though David, Whiting and McCray have all said in interviews that they are not part of a slate, they are being boosted together by the Patriot Network of Franklin County, an activist group opposed to mask mandates. All three have said they support masks on students being a matter of parental choice.
Despite a rocky start to the school year in which more than 1,000 children ended up in quarantine after the school board voted not to require documentation for mask exemption request, the trio remain steadfast in their views on masks.
“No one doubts the severity of COVID, and unfortunately masks and vaccines are contentious topics, but at the end of the day, it is my opinion that they are still choices — not mandates,” McCray wrote in an email.
The three are also getting a boost from Wren Williams, the 32-year-old first-time Republican candidate for the 9th District House of Delegates seat, which includes 20 of Franklin County’s 23 voting precincts.
“We’ve opened our resources to them if they need anything,” Williams said.
Williams takes pride in having orchestrated a Republican takeover of Patrick County’s Board of Supervisors and School Board while chair of that county’s Republican committee. He said he wants to do the same for the Franklin County School Board.
There’s some irony in the conservative targeting of Blue and Washburn, as the two are not allies and not ideologically similar. Even though Washburn twice voted with Blue to ban the Confederate flag, his main stated reason — that in the U.S. there should be only one flag upheld in schools — just happened to align with hers — that the flag is an offensive symbol of racism and oppression.
Washburn had words of caution for any candidates who win elections with plans to stick to an uncompromising ideology. “If you’re not willing to work with all people, then you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities, and you’re not really going to be able to do your job,” he said.
Blue’s words were even stronger, saying that David and Whiting “have no clue about what it is to run a school system, and to get children educated,” and if they’re elected, the “Franklin County school system is going to be in a whole lot of trouble.”
The member-at-large position is the only seat on the eight-member Franklin County School Board elected countywide. In 1971, a delegation of Black county residents asked Franklin County officials to create an eighth seat that would be filled by a Black appointee. The school board and board of supervisors agreed to the proposal.
Since then, only four people have held the member-at-large position, all of them Black. Blue’s late father, Charles Edwards Sr., was appointed to the job in 1977, the second person to hold the office. He stepped down in 1981. William Helm was appointed to be his replacement and held the office until his retirement at the end pf 2013, winning two contested elections along the way. A corporate consultant retired from a career with IBM, Blue won the five-way race to replace Helm.
Should David win in November, he’ll be in the position of being the first white person to serve as the school board’s member-at-large.
In an August interview, David said he wasn’t familiar with that aspect of the office’s history, but asserted that the skin color of an officeholder shouldn’t matter. “I don’t think about the color of it,” he said. “I don’t see that it’s an issue at all.”
Blue and David both come from farming families. Blue earned degrees in math, computer science and business administration and worked as a project executive for IBM before returning to Franklin County to help care for her father, who was in his 90s at the time. She has worked as a substitute teacher, and sought employment with Franklin County schools before running for school board.
In October 2019, she proposed banning the Confederate flag from the school dress code, kickstarting a debate that made national headlines. The board passed the ban 6-0 eight months later.
David had his own landscaping business before the 2008 recession spurred him to return to school and successfully pursue a medical degree. He works in Martinsville as a primary care physician.
Blue was consistently one of the most cautious school board members during the first school year affected by COVID-19 pandemic, advocating for strict social distancing protocols and virtual classes when that couldn’t be adhered to. David says that’s what motivated him to run, asserting some children were made more vulnerable to abuse and neglect when kept out of school. “Some of these kids do not have an adult set eyes on them other than a teacher or an administrator,” he said.
Blue frames it all as a matter of safety. “Just because I buy a car with an airbag and put on my seat belt and do the speed limit doesn't mean I'm driving in fear. I’m driving, based on what the science says I need to do,” she said. “When it comes to children in the school system, the first goal is to educate, but you do it in safety.”
Franklin County schools started the new school year with classes in-person rather than virtual. However, classes were derailed when a policy that made mask exemptions easy to get appeared to backfire, with hundreds of students ending up in quarantine and the school system overwhelmed by staff shortages. The mask exemption policy was a result of a compromise the school board arrived at after a vote to impose a universal mask mandate failed 4-4.
Blue strongly advocated for reversing the mask exemption policy during an emergency meeting Aug. 25. “Right now, we are putting large numbers of our children at risk, and we have too many children and staff in the school system that are not wearing masks, and that is totally not safe and unfair for those other people that are in this whole system.”
“The quarantines have been brutal,” David wrote in a text message. “But people should realize that quarantines would have still taken place, even if every single student would have worn a face mask to school, every single day,” because of the COVID-19 surge. “From an educational standpoint, this year has still been exponentially better than the fiasco that was virtual learning.”
Blue’s willingness to speak her mind on Confederate flags and COVID-19 has attracted attention from major news outlets drawn to the 56,000-population county by the dramatic conflicts connected to issues of national relevance.
A handful of anti-mask gadflies who have made regular appearances at recent school board meetings have tried to turn that against her, calling for her resignation because of an interview she gave to Channel 4, a United Kingdom news channel.
The segment, titled “Meet the Trump supporters with no regrets about the Capitol insurrection,” went live Jan. 19, and features interviews with Donald “Whitey” Taylor, founder of the Trump Store in Boones Mill and Jacob Fracker, a former Rocky Mount police officer facing federal charges for participating in the Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol.
During journalist Inigo Gilmore’s interview with Blue, she attributes support for the insurrection among some county residents to being raised with white supremacist values. “Trump didn’t come in and radicalize. He just came and took advantage of what’s here.”
Those targeting Blue have claimed that her statements in the interview paint all white county residents as white supremacists, which Blue called “saying I said things that I never said.”
“I shared with Channel 4 that Trump did not radicalize the insurrectionists, that white supremacy was already here in this country and in Franklin County and he just took advantage of it,” Blue said. “The propaganda concerning me is just the typical smear tactic used by people that are threatened by competition and diversity.”
David said he is not involved with the protests against Blue, and that it will be up to voters to decide what they think. “It was disappointing to hear her inflammatory remarks,” he said.
A bigger threat to Blue’s reelection might be the county’s voter demographics, as though she is running as an independent, she’s taken public positions perceived as liberal, facing an conservative opponent who has posed for a photo with former Republican Congressman Virgil Goode, still a popular figure in his home county. In recent elections, about 70% of Franklin County voters have reliably supported Republican candidates and conservative causes.
However, Blue, as her colleague Worley observed, isn’t one to back down from a fight.
“I have a lot of teacher support,” she said. “You have to listen to your people, the people that are doing the work. They know what’s going on.”
Snow Creek District
When voters in Franklin County’s Snow Creek district receive their ballots, they’ll see no candidates for school board listed. In fact, so far, there are three, but all are write-ins — including the well-known incumbent. Aside from his quarter-century on the school board, Washburn has also been director of the federal Farm Service Agency in Franklin County for more than 30 years.
His focus through his time on the school board has been elementary education, he said. “We need to pour any and all resources we need into the elementary, pre-K through third grade curriculum and instructions and teachers,” he said. If kids don’t excel at reading and writing by third grade, “they probably never will be a good reader.”
Over 26 years on the board, “I have always advocated for a conservative approach to a progressive education,” he said.
He might not have had a contested race this year had he sought the signatures that would have officially put his name on that ballot — but there were obstacles in his way.
“I had some health issues going on,” he said. Also, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there weren’t any big in-person gatherings such as church services happening in his geographically large but sparsely populated district. “I just felt like I was not going to get the signatures. It was going to be tough. It would have had to have been door to door.”
“I felt like, since he was a write-in as well, I might have a shot,” Whiting said.
The first opponent to challenge Washburn this year, Whiting considers the incumbent too willing to compromise. She said her highest priority concerns were policies for what bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students use, and the possibility that critical race theory is being introduced into the curriculum despite board members and staff declaring it’s not taught.
“We’ve long passed segregation and I feel like they are slowly but surely trying to push that into the school system,” she said.
A soft-spoken Philadelphia native, Whiting has been disabled since surviving a battle with breast cancer. She moved to Franklin County in 2018 to be near her brothers, who also live in Snow Creek, and her mother who lives in Roanoke.
She talks about being disabled and a victim of domestic violence in an NRA video titled “Disabled Woman Weak to Coronavirus Issues Message to Politicians Using Pandemic to Push Gun Control” that has been viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube.
“I don’t have the luxury of living in an affluent neighborhood with private security,” she says while holding a Freedom Ordnance FX-9 pistol caliber carbine, as an image of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flashes past. “Without my firearm, I’m defenseless.”
Whiting’s campaign fliers identify her as a Republican. Regarding her NRA support, she said, “I’m a conservative and believe in the 2nd Amendment. In my opinion, the majority of my community feels the same way I do.”
Stumping in Snow Creek as a Black conservative, she said residents she’s spoken to have thanked her for joining the race.
However, the third write-in candidate for the Snow Creek seat found both Washburn and Whiting wanting. A U.S. Navy veteran and information technology specialist, Maxwell said that he has been watching from afar and growing dissatisfied with a school system that seemed more focused on politics than education.
“We actually took financial classes when I was in school,” he said. “They don’t have any of that anymore.”
He accused Washburn of pandering to the anti-mask crowd by voting against adopting a mask mandate during that 4-4 split vote in August. Washburn ended up voting with the 7-1 majority in September that restored restrictions on mask exemptions.
“I do not pander to anyone,” Washburn responded. “I always attempt to make the best decisions based on all information available. We all were hopeful that there would not be another surge from the pandemic and we always want to allow parental choice as much as possible, but as the surge in COVID cases grew, we had to make changes to improve safety.”
The critical race theory controversy inspired Maxwell to run — not because he wants to see it banned, but because it has nothing to do with the real problems in the schools, he said. “Are we taking care of the issues that the kids are having in school, are we only talking about CRT, masks and COVID?”
Meanwhile, the parking lot at Sontag Elementary that’s too small for pickup and drop-off and the playground at Glade Hill Elementary that’s unsafe to use don’t get dealt with, he said.
“As far as CRT, I’m going to be very frank, I think it’s ridiculous,” Maxwell said. “It’s not something that I feel like they practice in Franklin County.”