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Orange County cuts ties with Virginia School Boards Association citing group's alleged leftist leanings

During a divisive meeting on May 20, the Orange County School Board voted 3-2 to not recertify its membership with the Virginia School Boards Association, claiming the nonpartisan statewide organization was a drain on resources and leaned too far to the political left.

“I’ve seen recordings where they mock our governor and anyone with a conservative viewpoint,” said Board Member Darlene Dawson, who referred to the organization as a “monopoly.” “They lobby for many things that I, on principle, stand against, and I’m not interested in supporting them. If you try to disagree with them, they will shut you down. I’ve seen it happen.”

Based in Charlottesville, the Virginia School Boards Association is composed of school boards from across the commonwealth focused on supporting school districts by providing legal, policy and collective bargaining expertise, advocating for members on a state and federal level, and assisting with searches for superintendents. Founded in 1906, the agency also offers seminars that allow school board members to complete training required by their posts.

Orange County’s decision last week makes it the second locality in Virginia to cut ties with the association. Warren County left in September.

Sandy Harrington, an Orange County School Board member who articulated her strong disapproval of the board’s ruling, was also displeased with the company the county was going to be keeping.

“I was asked at one point would the Orange County Public Schools system and board want to be recognized as a board and system of excellence, as in Fairfax County or Falls Church, or do we want to align ourselves with Warren County?” said Harrington at the meeting. “I don’t know, apparently you may.”

The charge to leave the school board association was primarily led by Board Member Chelsea Quintern, who offered the motion to bring the discussion to a vote. This alone led to discord before the real debate could commence, as both members of the board and audience assembled on May 20 were confused as to whether Robert’s Rules of Order even allowed for discussion on the motion given it was not listed as an action item on the meeting’s agenda. Ultimately, the discussion and vote were permitted to proceed, to Harrington’s chagrin.

"You may do what you want, you have the majority, you tend to do that anyway, but that’s how I feel about it,” she said to Quintern.

Quintern, who does not have to run under a party’s banner but ran for the school board as a self-proclaimed Republican anyway, raised concerns regarding the school board association’s political leanings and the types of policies it pushes in Virginia’s legislature.

Quintern contradicted herself at the May 20 meeting, claiming she "has not used VSBA resources once in the last two years" but that while attending a training session offered through the association “they did not like my opinion and I was not welcome to share it on certain hot-topic items."

Board members do not have to fulfill their training requirements solely through the school board association; they can attend similar programs offered by other groups, an alternative many of Orange County’s board members admitted they take advantage of.

Not only did Quintern say that she had faced pushback for her comments at a school board association meeting, she also alleged that the nonpartisan organization had taken the issue to the press.

“I don’t want to spend money on an organization that publishes op-ed hit pieces on single board members, which that did in fact happen to myself,” said Quintern. “I feel like that money could be better spent elsewhere in our school system.”

The op-ed she referenced could not be found on the school board association’s website, but Quintern does appear in a number of local and national news stories regarding a resolution she brought before the board in April 2022.

In response to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s law requiring all Virginia school districts to notify parents whenever “sexually explicit material” is included in the curriculum, Quintern proposed a similar resolution in Orange. However, it was her own addition to the proposal that caused significant public outcry, one requiring “schools to notify parents of healthcare services and involvement in critical decisions affecting students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being; including, but not limited to self-identification.”

The resolution was eventually voted down several months later, though the backlash against Quintern continued for some time. An online petition to remove her from the school board acquired more than 1,000 signatures and the valedictorian from the Orange County High School class of 2023, Solo Mthethwa, explicitly called for her resignation, along with two of her colleagues on the board at the time, during his graduation speech.

Dawson and the board’s chairwoman, Melissa Anderson, who both joined Quintern in voting down the motion to renew the board’s membership, shared Quintern’s frustration with the price tag associated with the statewide school board association. According to Anderson’s comments during the discussion, the board pays a $8,850 membership fee each year in addition to $3,000 for the policy services.

“My biggest concern is that we are paying a lump sum for the board,” said Anderson, who added she’d rather spend money on an attorney to review their policies, a service currently offered by the Virginia School Boards Association at a cost.

Harrington dismissed her colleague’s concerns about the price of the membership, calling their arguments “pretty disingenuous” given Anderson “walked in here on the night that the budget was adopted, and you threw out three new positions for close to $400,000 without batting an eye. ”

The Daily Progress reached out to the Virginia School Boards Association for comment with no response.

Aside from Harrington, Jack Rickett was the only other board member who offered a dissenting opinion, pointing out in his brief remarks that the school board association ensures the school district’s policies remain in compliance with Virginia law. While the board could hire lawyers instead, it would likely not do much to alleviate the associated cost, said Rickett.

Harrington agreed, saying it would be impossible for board members to fill the Virginia School Boards Association’s role, particularly in regard to governance training and negotiating with state legislators in Richmond.

“In my opinion, we have challenges just running a board meeting; it’s not pretty sometimes,” she said. “I have a huge problem with you eliminating the opportunity for me as a board member to get appropriate training.”

After nearly half an hour of tense back-and-forth, the majority carried the vote and Orange County will no longer be affiliated with the Virginia School Boards Association effective June 30.

The next school board meeting is set for June 3, where constituents will have the opportunity to comment on the recent decision.

“You will do what you want, but I think this is a significant step in the wrong direction, and I will continue to advocate for proper governance,” said Harrington to her fellow board members after the vote. “I think you’re making a decision with bias, and I do not support it.”


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