CHRISTIANSBURG — A Montgomery County School Board meeting briefly became rowdy Tuesday, prompting the elected body’s chairwoman to leave for the remainder of the night after being directly targeted by a local right wing activist over masking.
Board Chairwoman Sue Kass, who just started the third year of her term and was selected to the leadership role last month, left the meeting during the midst of the regular public comments period a short time after a speaker, Alecia Vaught, held up her phone and showed what she said were Facebook photos of Kass without a mask on while in a crowd.
The move from Vaught prompted Kass to interject and hit the gavel several times.
“That’s it. Excuse me. No … No. I’m sorry Ms. Vaught, you are done,” Kass said. “If you’re going to sit there and disparage a member of our school board, then you can sit down. If you have something effective to say…”
Vaught, who held a mask in her hand but was not wearing it while speaking, quickly responded by saying she has “facts and truth” on her side, prompting Kass to call on the county deputy in the room to escort the speaker out.
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“Really?” said Vaught, who questioned whether the school board member was afraid of the comments being expressed.
“I’m not scared, I don’t care,” Kass said in response.
After the deputy walked up to Vaught and told her that she had been asked to leave, she said: “Why? For speaking the truth? Can I finish?”
“No,” Kass said, adding that unless the speaker’s remaining comments would address issues concerning students.
The exchange between Kass and the speaker was among the most heated interactions seen in at least the past several years between a sitting member of the elected body and a local resident during a meeting — and even among board members, which have frequently found themselves at odds since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Tuesday night comments also offered another look at the controversial issue of masking in schools, which has led many boards across the state and country to become the targets of parents who view the matter strictly as one of family choice and who question the effectiveness of face coverings.
The debate has frequently put school boards in the difficult position of either acquiescing to parental pressure or following the guidance of experts and health agencies that continue to recommend masking as effective tools in controlling the spread of the coronavirus within schools.
Vaught was not the only speaker Tuesday who called for an ending of the indoor masking mandate and has been among the contingent of local residents who have vehemently opposed the measure.
The recent meeting occurred amid statewide anticipation of legislation to keep school boards from requiring masking in schools — the legislation, however, hasn’t become law yet due to some requested amendments from Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. The Montgomery board later that night passed several measures related to mask lifting.
Montgomery County Public Schools was among the Virginia school districts that last month extended its indoor masking requirement, a move that was said to follow state law passed last year but ran counter to a controversial order issued by Youngkin shortly after he formally took office. Kass was among the board members who voted in favor of the measure.
Vaught, who criticized some other MCPS policies that she attributed to pressure from “liberals,” spoke on the board’s previous masking decision.
“Here’s a governor that comes into office, but yet you don’t want to follow his orders. Why is that? Why is it different from last year when we were here to this year?” Vaught said. “Two different governors, different political parties. So we’re supposed to follow it last year, but not this year? That makes no sense, and it makes all of you a bunch of hypocrites, except for [board members] Dana [Partin] and Jamie [Bond].”
Despite the deputy being called up, Vaught was able to finish speaking Tuesday and even received some backing from Bond.
“She should be able to say her piece,” Bond said. “I’ve had to listen to people come and criticize me.”
Kass responded to her colleague by asking if people did in fact openly criticize her last year, to which Bond said: “Absolutely, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”
Kass, however, shot back and asked Bond if that scrutiny involved someone showing photos of her family.
“They showed pictures of your family?” Kass said.
Bond responded that they did worse.
“That doesn’t make it right, Jamie,” Kass said. “That’s my family.”
Vaught then interrupted the two board members.
“What do you think about our family? Our family has been suffocated to death with your policies,” Vaught said.
While Kass said “I am done,” board Vice Chairwoman Penny Franklin said the speaker’s time was up.
“You can’t deal with the truth, you don’t need to be a school board member. We’re coming for your seat,” Vaught said.
Board member Mark Cherbaka cut in and said: “It’s not the truth, but that’s not the issue.”
Before walking past Vaught and leaving the room, Kass said to the speaker that she could have her seat.
“We’re coming for them. All of them, except for Dana and Jamie,” Vaught said.
While Montgomery School Board members do not declare official party affiliations, Bond and Partin do serve some of the more conservative leaning districts in the county.
Bond and Partin, wife of elected Republican county Sheriff Hank Partin, were among the board members who voted against indoor masking back in August, but former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam did say at the time that state law required masking in school buildings and re-enforced it with his own emergency order.
The board briefly suspended the meeting to try to get Kass to return to the room, but was unsuccessful.
A Roanoke Times reporter caught up with Kass before she left the Operations Center, the facility in Christiansburg where the board convened Tuesday.
Kass, a former teacher, lamented the level of personal politics and “selfish beliefs” that she said have been injected into discussions on the pandemic.
“I volunteered to do this because I care about teachers, and I care about students,” she said.
Kass said the photos Vaught showed on her phone proved “absolutely nothing.”
Kass said Tuesday was also upsetting because her father was in the hospital at the time of the meeting.
“And I stayed here for this,” she said.