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Spotsylvania superintendent vote shows how charged school meetings have become

Within five minutes of the school board meeting on Friday night, several board members were shouting at each other. Within the next five minutes, a board member’s attempt to speak was repeatedly interrupted by another member loudly saying, “It’s disgusting,” and “Shame on you,” and “Shame on you, shame on you, shame on you.”

The chaos came when the Spotsylvania County school board met for one of their most important decisions: choosing the next leader for the Virginia district’s public schools. And it marked a dramatic shift in many such gatherings across the country, where once sleepy, well-mannered procedural gatherings have become hotbeds for communities polarized over cultural issues such as parental and transgender rights.

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

The decision to offer Mark Taylor the job at the top school came the day after some parents raised concerns at a meeting of the Board of Education in Virginia this week about what they called dubious social media posts by the candidate. The board considered licensing Taylor, who has no educational experience but has been promoted by some supporters as a proven leader with business acumen.

Earlier this week, the county sheriff’s office announced it would not send deputies to secure school board meetings after mid-October.

Last fall, the then-interim leader of the National School Boards Association sought federal assistance in providing protections at local school assemblies, citing threats and disruptions reported across the country. The group quickly apologized for the action, emphasized the importance of local control, and replaced its leadership. But the kinds of events that had sparked concern — extreme language, threats and physical altercations — have continued to disrupt communities as the pandemic and cultural divides widen.

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

The new majority led to several 4-3 votes.

They are steadfast in their religious and political mandate and beliefs, majority bloc board member Nicole Cole said by phone on Saturday. “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. On Monday, people gathered in a board meeting, some had to stand, some held up notepads of messages if they wanted to object without disrupting the meeting, according to a board member, some jeered when people tried to make public comments were interrupted by the board .

On Wednesday, the sheriff announced that deputies would no longer be involved in routine security during the 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 been placed in a position with one or more members on numerous occasions, regarding ‘disruptive’ citizens.”

Harris and a spokesperson for the department did not immediately respond to messages asking for comment on Saturday.

“I’m concerned because I’ve had reason to be scared,” because of threats against her on the board, Cole said. “Bee [the] At the same time, I’m also glad the sheriff has taken that position,” she said, as deputies should not be there to prevent people from expressing their views in a public meeting.

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On Thursday, supporters and opponents of Taylor traveled to Richmond, where the Virginia Board of Education was considering granting Taylor a divisional superintendent license.

Rich Lieberman, a parent who ran a failed campaign for one of the school board seats last fall, said Taylor had posted things on social media that were racist, homophobic and against public schools.

“My child deserves better,” Lieberman said in a telephone interview on Saturday. “All the kids in Spotsylvania deserve better.”

Taylor did not immediately return requests for comment on Saturday. In an 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 this was his or not. He said he would never knowingly or intentionally post anything that was racist and said, “That’s not my value system. I don’t believe in that.”

He has said that parents should have a greater say in schools and be able to choose how their children are raised.

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

The state council voted Thursday to grant the permit.

On Friday, Spotsylvania school board member Cole caused a controversy at the board meeting when she attempted to read an email she said was from one of Taylor’s daughters stating that he was unfit for the job because of his opposition to public schools, lack of experience, and religious and political agenda — and that he was considered only because of his close friendship with the chairman of the board. The letter also criticized the homeschooling the woman said she had received from Taylor.

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The minority bloc of board members tried to suspend the meeting but was voted out.

The contract was voted on: four to three.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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