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Editorial: School board recall effort meets reality and runs aground

Loudoun County protesters

Parents protest at a school board meeting in Loudoun County in June 2021.

Granting attention to developments in the school district that serves the nation’s wealthiest county could seem quaint, given that Southwest Virginia’s school districts on the whole face quite different circumstances when it comes to funding.

Yet there are lessons that apply to our school boards and the public’s perception of how they function. A recent development that deserves scrutiny provides a demonstration of how basing one’s understanding of how government works on the headlines of articles shared on social media will only get you so far when seeking significant change — specifically, the notion that one can simply “recall” elected school board members if they won’t pay obeisance to a pet political or religious ideology.

A recall process does exist. A Loudoun County activist group just got schooled in how it actually works — or in their case, how it didn’t work.

In a development that cannot possibly be of any use in bettering the education of the district’s students, Loudoun County has been ground zero for multiple national culture war obsessions, such as the concocted controversy around the nonexistent teaching of “critical race theory.” Missteps by Loudoun County’s school board members and staff have compounded the problem (Jan. 9, “A different view of the troubles in Loudoun County“), as has Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s continued exploitation of the hullabaloo to stay before network cameras while appearing to explore the possibility of running for even higher office (May 4, “Suetterlein votes conscience over party“).

The tempests in Loudoun have had bearing in Southwest Virginia largely because activists with a conservative religious agenda have looked to actions there as models to imitate. During the politically charged run up to the November 2021 election, attendees of at least some Southwest Virginia school board meetings had good odds of hearing recall threats voiced whenever a board member tried to explain that “critical race theory” wasn’t being taught in school classrooms.

In Virginia, an elected official can be subject to a recall if a petition collects enough signatures to match 10% of the vote cast in that official’s last election. With Fox News and other conservative news outlets stoking the rage against Loudoun’s school board members, signature collecting was no more difficult than crowdfunding for a popular Kickstarter campaign.

Total failure to recall

However, the signatures are just the first step. The petition then goes before a circuit court judge, who decides whether holding a trial or calling for a recall election is necessary.

You could say that once the recall ship in Loudoun County reached the judge, that’s where it ran aground — except the ruling showed that for all the hubbub, the ship had never actually left the pier.

As reported by Loudoun Now, retired Virginia Beach Judge Thomas Padrick Jr. dismissed the petitions against school board members Brenda Sheridan and Atoosa Reaser, noting that Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joseph D. Platania, the special prosecutor assigned to the case, found no evidence that either had abused their offices.

Padrick made a crack in court that no commonwealth’s attorney was interested in taking on these cases. One can presume they recognized a complaint based on partisan outrage and emotion rather than any discernible violation of law.

During the hearing, as reported by Loudoun Now, an attorney for Fight for Schools, the activist group championing the petitions, hinted at how deep this delusional rabbit hole can go, suggesting to the judge that recall petitions could be organized against commonwealth’s attorneys.

Thwarted effort to reform

A pair of Democratic lawmakers, Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond and Del. Marcus Simon of Fairfax County attempted to reform the recall law this year by introducing legislation that would have raised the standard for the number of signatures necessary to 30% of the total number of votes cast during the previous election. Perhaps a year ago this reform would have even made it to the governor’s desk.

Though McClellan’s bill scraped through the Senate on a 21-18 vote, both versions ultimately perished in the privileges and elections committee of the Republican-controlled House. Hopefully the problem will be tackled in a future General Assembly, as a toughening of the recall standard is clearly necessary, but let’s be frank — so long as the Loudoun County mess remains a millstone around Democrats’ necks and a recruitment driver for Republicans, that reform won’t have wings in this divided government, even less so if Republicans claim the Senate.

That’s a shame because the whole recall dog-and-pony show is a sham, a distraction from much more important issues, such as addressing the commonwealth’s $25 billion crumbling schools crisis, solutions for which would benefit Southwest Virginia concretely (pun intended).

The self-destruction of the recall efforts hardly ends legal proceedings in Loudoun, as Attorney General Jason Miyares is conducting a grand jury investigation into the school division’s apparent mishandling of a sexual assault case. That matter deserves thorough investigation without partisan grandstanding — which has already occurred in spades, alas.

Perhaps it’s futile to long for school board meetings to be untethered from partisan politics in the highly polarized state of affairs we dwell in now, but we hold out hope that wiser, cooler heads will recognize this necessity and put the focus back where it belongs, on bettering education for all our children.

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