Loudoun school board race could have national impact for GOP

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This fall’s race for two Loudoun school board seats is tight and partisan, with the candidates’ platforms seemingly determined by their political affiliation – and the six candidates grappling with some families’ lingering anger over the way the school district handled a high profile pair of student sexual assaults.

The two seats up for re-election are those representing the districts of Leesburg and Broad Run, with three candidates for each seat. Although school boards are ostensibly nonpartisan, each race has a Republican, Democrat, and Independent or Moderate candidate. Republicans largely focus on school safety and parent rights, while Democrats focus on literacy and staffing, and independent candidates prioritize achievement gaps in education, the needs of students in special education and better communication with parents.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) is also swaying the campaign, with Republican candidates largely echoing the education-related talking points he successfully leaned on to secure the gubernatorial post in 2021. The governor has frequently criticized the Loudoun School District for its response. sexual assaults, which his administration is currently investigating. Youngkin unsuccessfully tried to force all nine school board members to run for office in November, rather than just the two who were required to do so.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said Loudoun’s race results could be a flag for the Republican Party nationwide, many of whose members would like to emulate Youngkin’s success last year. in Virginia.

“Loudoun County has really become ground zero for Republican efforts to reclaim the suburbs,” he said. “If renewed Republican efforts result in gains in Loudoun, you can expect similar efforts elsewhere.”

The trio competing for the Broad Run seat includes Nick Gothard, a 22-year-old nonprofit program manager; Tiffany Polifko, a 40-year-old behavior analyst who treats children with autism; and Andrew Hoyler, a 26-year-old commercial airline pilot who currently serves on the school board. The three contenders for the Leesburg seat are Lauren Shernoff, 38, a part-time teacher from Loudoun; 56-year-old Sheriff’s Office Deputy Michael Rivera; and Erika Ogedegbe, 52-year-old chief data architect at American University. (Leesburg Area Holder, Tom Marshall removed from the race in August after failing to receive endorsements from the county teachers’ group or the Democratic Party, among other reasons, according to dispatches.)

Ogedegbe and Gothard received the approval of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee, while Polifko and Rivera won endorsements of the Loudoun County Republican Committee. Hoyler identifies as an independent, and Shernoff wrote in an email that she refused to accept endorsement from either political party because “the school board is supposed to be…non-partisan.” .

Adding to the competitive nature of the race, the six contestants collectively raised tens of thousands of dollars by the end of October. Fundraising is not unusually important for a school board election – especially in recent years, when fierce battles over what schools should teach about race, racism, history, gender and sexuality have seen school board races across the country pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars from Conservative political action committees Where wealthy people.

Asked what they think are the biggest issues facing the school district, both Republican candidates said they believe parents don’t have enough rights over their children’s education. Polifko said she was unhappy that sexually explicit books were available for children in school libraries and that she did not think the grading policies were rigorous enough.

In an email, Rivera said “student and teacher safety” was her primary concern. He also shared his displeasure with Loudoun’s handling of sexual assaults: When a student committed a sexual assault on one campus last year, the district transferred the minor to another, where he committed a second assault. . Rivera said the school board, superintendent and senior staff should have been more candid with the public about the assaults.

“The manner in which the assaults were investigated and reported was a catalyst in Loudoun that exposed how morally vacant and corrupt the school board was and continues to be,” he said.

Rivera said he thinks Loudoun executives should have lost their jobs because of the sexual assaults, as did Polifko.

These candidates’ platforms resonate with some conservative parents, including Ian Prior, a Loudoun father and former Trump administration official who heads the parent advocacy group Fight for Schools. Prior said Fight for Schools had decided not to back any candidate in the race, but would prefer not to see any of the Democratic candidates (Gothard and Ogedegbe) elected.

“I think [the candidates] hit the big points,” Prior said. “The question of parental rights in particular.”

By contrast, the Democratic candidates wrote in emails that they had different priorities. Ogedegbe said she thinks Loudoun needs to improve its early literacy teaching, improve its staff recruitment and retention, and increase its communication with families. Gothard also expressed concern about literacy and teacher recruitment and retention, as well as failing school infrastructure.

“These issues strike at the heart of our education system and require political representatives who will work tirelessly to resolve them,” Gothard wrote.

Asked about Loudoun’s handling of sexual assaults, Gothard and Ogedegbe were less harsh in their judgments than their Republican competitors. Gothard said he takes the sexual assaults very seriously and is frustrated that some details of what happened remain unknown to the public. But he did not call for the dismissal of senior Loudoun school officials.

Ogedegbe wrote in an email that “it is very clear that something has gone horribly wrong” and that “his heart goes out to everyone affected by these crimes.” She said she didn’t know if the superintendent or other administrators should have lost their jobs because she didn’t know all the facts of the case.

The campaigns of these candidates earned them the appreciation of more liberal parents, including members of the progressive parent group Loudoun 4 All. The group wrote in a statement that “Ogedegbe and Gothard have worked to refocus their campaigns on real issues,” compared to their Republican counterparts. Both candidates were also endorsed by the Loudoun Education Association’s group of teachers.

Sandy Sullivan, president of the association, said in an interview that Gothard and Ogedegbe had the right priorities and would take the right approach to lead Loudoun’s school system.

“We have to take care of children as individuals, and that’s really a goal of these two candidates – early literacy, they know that’s a big concern,” said Sullivan, whose association counts. approximately 3,400 members. “Both Nick and Erika are exceptional candidates, they have deep roots in our communities, they are consensus builders and peacemakers.”

Meanwhile, independent candidates Shernoff and Hoyler are both primarily concerned about student academic performance. Shernoff wrote in an email that the Loudoun District needs to address learning loss due to the coronavirus pandemic, improve its offerings for special education students, and implement a new literacy program. Similarly, Hoyler wrote that Loudoun needs to close the gaps in academic achievement and find ways to better accommodate its students in special education.

Both candidates also stressed the need for Loudoun school officials to speak more often and more honestly to parents. Shernoff wrote that Loudoun’s management needs to work on its “transparency and accountability, two-way communication and parental involvement.”

Hoyler wrote, “Our community needs a transparent representative who prioritizes open and honest communication.”

When it comes to campaign finance, Shernoff, aided by large donations from her family, far outpaced her competitors.

In Leesburg, Ogedegbe said she raised $12,768, with 71% of the money coming from current and former neighbours, family, friends and colleagues. Rivera said he raised about $13,000, mostly through private donations from individuals. Shernoff said she raised $53,940.

“We were 10% self-funded, had support from my amazing family…40%, and had over 70 unique in-kind and cash donors supporting our mission, which is the remaining 50%,” she wrote.

At Broad Run, Gothard said he won over $16,000. He said most of his donors are educators and the average individual donation is around $40. Hoyler said he raised $10,000 from “people on both sides of the political spectrum,” although he did not accept any money from parties, political action committees or special interest groups. Polifko did not respond to a question about its funding.

Shannon Pecora, a parent of two Loudoun County students, said she was generally unhappy that so much of the school board race is focused on issues that have become political footballs — for example, concerns regarding parental rights and dissatisfaction with the handling of sexual assault cases – and that she is even more distressed by the fact that the two races are so openly partisan.

She said Youngkin uses Loudoun as “his proving ground where he can craft his own political aspirations.” [and] sadly, there are plenty of Loudoun residents who fall for the rhetoric about reality – and more sadly, they allow that to steer their votes.

Pecora added: “The school board, at its very core, is not a political arena. There is nothing “liberal” or “conservative” about the ideology that pertains to the operation of the school board.

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