School Superintendent Scott Ziegler for the first time publicly reacted to the barrage of criticism he has faced during his tenure at a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and School Board Thursday.
The routine annual meeting Thursday, Feb. 10 is meant to be a formal presentation and explanation of the school system’s request for funding to the county board. The room was packed with TV cameras that had come into the usually quiet meeting following a press conference with the family of a girl raped by a fellow high school student and ongoing controversy around the school district. And a prepared statement by Supervisor Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) excoriating Ziegler, and the presence of the TV crews, prompted Ziegler to declare: “That was an ambush.”
Kershner pressed Ziegler to release a third-party investigation into the handling of those rapes—Scott Smith, who spoke to press before the meeting, is the father of the teen rapist’s first victim. Afterward he was transferred to a different high school pending his trial, where he assaulted a second girl. But the school district has declined to release the investigation into its handling of that incident, even in a redacted format.
Kershner’s speech prompted Ziegler to defend himself at a public meeting for the first time.
“I was not given a chance to prepare a response and nor would a response be necessarily appropriate, because integrity to me means that when information needs to be kept confidential, it’s kept confidential,” Ziegler said. “And if that means I need to continue to be the lighting rod, I will continue to be the lighting rod, but make no mistake: this is not a failing school division. Mr. Kershner should judge us based on our academic results, based on the forward-thinking and most progressive budget that has been delivered to the board of supervisors in many years.”
Kershner had said he had “lost faith” in Ziegler’s leadership.
“Turn on the TV and our school board is on national news. We’re making bad decisions of mistreated parents and students,” Kerhsner said. “I have constituents who are beside themselves on a regular basis. Loudoun schools are in the news for all the wrong reasons.”
He pointed to the School Board’s handling of those assaults, as well as the decision to suspend elementary P.E. teacher Tanner Cross following parent concerns that he said he would not observe a school policy offering protections for transgender students.
Kersher’s law firm defended the teenaged offender, and he subsequently posted on Facebook arguing the Board of Supervisors should withhold funding, effectively shutting down the school system, until the report is released. That was not enough to win over the Smith family, who have also called to withhold funding until the report is released. Scott Smith was asked at the press conference before the meeting what he thought of Kershner being both the teenaged offender’s defense attorney and calling for halting school funding. Smith said Kershner had represented the boy before the second offense.
“What they did to my daughter, what his law firm did to my daughter, was absolutely disgusting. Yeah, he was hired to defend his client—quite honestly he did a pretty good job of it. But dragging my daughter through that to a trial, that was just disgusting,” Smith said. “But you know what? My daughter won. My daughter took every one of your junior attorney’s questions, answered them truthfully, and got a conviction for herself. I didn’t get it for her, she [Smith’s wife Jessica] didn’t get it for her—Kershner certainly didn’t help her, he tired to destroy her—but she won. She got a conviction. I think that his little Facebook post at 11 o’lock at night or whatever it was, I think he’s just trying to get in front of the snowball. I think the snowball’s going to run him over too.”
Kershner’s diatribe prompted a corresponding outburst from Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn).
“Dr. Ziegler, I want to apologize as a supervisor. You have to understand, Supervisor Kershner must build his President Trump, weaponized political rhetoric…” he said before being gaveled out of order by Randall.
But other supervisors and School Board members also reflected on the politically-charged environment overhanging this year’s school budget deliberations.
“I think all of us as elected officials would not be doing our jobs if we didn’t acknowledge that here is still a lot of discord in the community about this,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “…I just simply want to know what happened, and if there was a mistake, if it’s been corrected, and I don’t think those answers have come yet.”
“Some of the speakers at our board meetings has ripped the veneer off any kind of decency in humanity, and I was shocked at what I have to listen to day in, day out,” said School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg). “…I think we’ve got to calm it down, stop making political jibes at people and try to get our work done as collaborators, not as enemies.”
“Dr. Ziegler’s commitment to support student privacy and to be the lightning rod for criticism is a perfect demonstration of his integrity and why he continues to have my unwavering support,” said School Board member Brenda Sheridan (Sterling).
School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) encouraged patience.
“People are telling us to take actions, some drastic actions, but the prudent way to approach what we’re doing is a calm and measured response, which I believe Dr. Ziegler and the School Board continues to provide, to the situations that have arisen,” Morse said. “There have been a lot of concerns over the last two years, and we have an introspective look at this every day, and we are here to help the citizens and the children of Loudoun County and that’s our end focus. There are no conspiracies here.”
And Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) reiterated a sentiment she expressed to the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce the day before. She said the school system has made some poor decisions, but “an entity is never the sum total of their worst decisions or their worst moments.”
“It is okay for us to say that we have in many ways an excellent school system with a high graduation rate and kids who are thriving and doing very, very well, and we still have parents who do not feel like all questions have answered, and are worried about their kids’ safety and mental health,” Randall said. “Both of those things can survive at the same time. You can have a hero and still realize that your hero can make mistakes,” Randall said.
And, she added, “we’ve gotten off balance, and if we do not get back on balance and do it very quickly, what I honestly believe is the best county in the country will tear ourselves apart.”
After the meeting, Randall and Morse said despite the politically charged conversation around the school budget this year, they expect budget deliberations to happen as normal.
“The majority the board are making our budget deliberations, budget decisions, like we do every year,” Randall said. “We’re not going to not fund, adequately fund, the School Board based on political considerations, and to not adequately fund the School Board hurts teachers and students. And so, we’re not doing that.”
Morse said he trusts that is the case.
“That doesn’t mean necessarily that I expect full funding, but I trust that they will follow the same process we always have,” Morse said.
This article was updated Feb. 11 at 10:26 a.m. to correct an error about the high school incidents.