Despite state legislative races that could have huge implications for the future of Virginia, voters in Albemarle County on Tuesday were instead largely focused on a single school board seat.
That race has pitted Allison Spillman, a Democrat and mother of five public school students, against Meg Bryce, the daughter of late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the mother of four students in private school.
Their fight over the at-large seat on the Albemarle County School Board reflects a new reality across the U.S.: School board elections have become a political battleground.
“We’re trying to keep crazy out of the school board,” Tom David told The Daily Progress as he was heading into a polling station at Baker-Butler Elementary School, his 21-year-old son Daniel by his side.
To the Davids, “crazy” is Bryce, whom the Spillman campaign has painted as a hardcore member of the “radical right.” Bryce has called those attacks unethical, claiming that the Spillman campaign has tried to inject politics into what should be a nonpartisan race and make her out to be a woman to be feared.
It appears to have worked.
While the election results were still unknown Tuesday at press time, nearly 21,000 voters had hit the polls in the county as of 4 p.m. And some, like the Davids, went specifically to keep Bryce away from the school board.
“Book banning. Just bullying. The anti-LGBTQ stance,” Tom David said, listing what he thinks might happen if Bryce wins.
Cathy Palombi, a former librarian, was similarly worried that a Bryce victory could lead to book bans.
“We live in a democracy. We should be able to read what we want, live the way we want to live and not have people tell us what’s right and wrong,” she said. “I feel like we’re taking about 50 steps backwards with people like [Bryce].”
Bryce has previously told The Daily Progress she would not ban or remove books from schools.
Her critics don’t buy it.
In Virginia, school board candidates must run as independents. But the local Democratic Party and the Spillman campaign have worked to tie Bryce to the GOP, describing her as a Republican in disguise. To bolster their argument, Bryce critics have been sure to note that she is a Scalia by birth.
And with national headlines about school districts banning books in Texas, Florida and even Virginia’s own Spotsylvania County, the thought of a member of the “radical right” joining a school board is frightening to many voters, especially in a Democratic stronghold such as Albemarle County.
Bryce’s attempts to distance herself from the Republican Party and partisan politics was hurt last week when the Albemarle County Republican Committee endorsed her on its website. The local party arm said Bryce had asked it not to endorse her and later removed the post after roughly 24 hours at Bryce’s request.
“I have intentionally stayed away from any party endorsements because I feel they are inconsistent with the ‘non-partisan’ designation of school board races,” Bryce told The Daily Progress at the time. “My name was added to that website without my knowledge or permission and when I learned of it, I respectfully asked that it be removed.”
While the Spillman campaign has tried to highlight any connections it can find between the Republican Party and Bryce, it has embraced its own endorsement from the county’s Democratic Party.
It’s a strategy that embraces a fact in Albemarle: The county elects Democrats. To be labeled a Republican in the deep-blue county can be the kiss of death.
But conservative voters do exist, and some that spoke to The Daily Progress were rallying behind Bryce because they share her values.
“I was interested in the at-large candidate for school board and to ensure that we get a more conservative state government,” said former school bus driver Frank Checchi. Before entering the polls, he briefly spoke with Bryce, telling her that her “TV ads were right on point.”
Carmine Covais and his wife said Bryce has the “right mentality” for the job.
“It’s one of focusing on the student rather than on politics,” he said. “We don’t even have children in school, but we’re concerned about how kids are being taught.”
The Covais said they worry that schools are “emphasizing sexuality.”
Tom David, meanwhile, argued that Bryce “doesn’t have any skin in the game,” a reference to the fact that she took her kids out of public school and moved them to a private school after she said she grew disenchanted with the school district’s leadership during COVID.
He’s also concerned that Bryce would take public school funding and divert it to charter schools and homeschooling.
“That’s just not how public education should be,” he said.
Despite the concerns from David and many others, the election promises to be close. Bryce has amassed a large base of volunteers, many of whom agree with her message that the county is spending a lot of money on students while also seeing declining test scores. Surrounding counties such as Louisa, she has said, are doing more with less. It’s time for a change, Bryce supporters say.
On Tuesday, Bryce had 70 supporters at 30 precincts, an organized and motivated team that illustrates the grassroots strength Bryce and her message have garnered.
While the Bryce-Spillman race is expected to come down to the wire, the other races are unlikely to have big surprises.
Democrats state Sen. Creigh Deeds and House of Delegates candidate Amy Laufer are hoping to cruise to victory over Republicans Philip Hamilton and Steve Harvey, respectively. Deeds will be powered by his name recognition and three decades of experience. He and Laufer will also be helped by their support for abortion rights, a major deciding factor for voters after the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Democrat and former Albemarle School Board member Katrina Callsen, running to represent District 54 in the House of Delegates, was running Tuesday unopposed.
On the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, Ann Mallek may have a tight race against newcomer Brad Rykal. And Bea LaPisto-Kirtley has had to play some defense against a flashy T.J. Fadeley, who has released multiple statements criticizing the incumbent. But some of those attacks may have backfired.
One voter The Daily Progress spoke to heard about mailers that the Fadeley team distributed which included an unflattering photoshopped image of LaPisto-Kirtley as a gambling Gypsy woman.
Sylvia Glover said she “was really on the fence” in that race until she heard about the mailer.
“That did not sit well with me,” she said. “Speak the truth and don’t smear anybody.”