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State Senate Fends Off Youngkin’s School Board Snap Election Attempt

Gov. Glenn Youngkin during an event in February 2022 at the Leesburg Diner on downtown King Street. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

The Virginia Senate last night blocked Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s effort to force new elections for Loudoun’s School Board.

Youngkin’s push came through an amendment to a bill tweaking the procedure by which the School Board will transition to staggard terms. It comes as his administration is investigating the school division’s handling of two sexual assaults committed by the same student and waves of criticism of its pandemic classroom closures and equity initiatives.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing the Loudoun County School Board to begin staggered terms by having members draw lots before the 2023 elections to decide which district representatives would serve two-year terms and which would have regular four-year term during the initial transition. This year, Del. David Reid (D-32)’s House Bill 1138 originally only specified when that lot drawing would take place—but after passing the General Assembly, Youngkin sought to amend the bill to force Loudoun County School Board elections this year in addition to next year, prompting concerns about both the amendment’s constitutionality and state interference in local elections for political reasons.

That amendment was agreed to in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates on a party-line vote, but defeated in the Democrat-controlled Senate, with Roanoke Republican Sen. David R. Suetterlein (R-19) crossing party lines to oppose it as well.

Under Virginia law, the amended bill would become law with a majority vote among members present in both houses. If two-thirds of members in both houses vote to oppose the amendment, the original bill becomes law. If neither action occurs, the original bill returns to the governor’s desk.

“The voters voted in 2019 for those members expecting they would have a four-year term. That was the deal the voters thought they were getting,” said Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-31). “The governor has arbitrarily decided that those terms should be three years rather than four, simply because—I don’t know, he wanted to do it. There was no rationale for that. That kind of action breaks trust with the voters.”

Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-33) pointed to the work school boards have been doing in the state during this term—and to the death threats Loudoun County School Board members have endured. And she said shortening elected terms unilaterally and without allowing the residents of Loudoun County to weigh in on it “is disgusting to me.”

“We have a recall process. We are not going to debate a horrible situation that happened to a child in this body, and fix it in this room. That is before the courts where it should belong,” she said.

“One of the hallmarks of American democracy, or any stable democracy, is stability. One of the hallmarks of a stable Democracy is predictability, rules, procedure, process,” said Richmond Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-9). “…What’s happening in Loudon is the School Board has become the political battleground. That’s not unusual. Many times in our history as a Commonwealth and a country, public schools and school boards become the battleground in culture wars. That’s what’s really happening here. And do you know who loses? Our students and their parents.”

Of Loudoun senators, only Sen. Jill Vogel (R-27) supported the bill, arguing Virginia’s removal process is “a lot of work.”

“It’s not very effective, and all it does is contribute to a lot of negative conversation in and around the School Board and what’s happening, and it’s petitions, and it’s families, and it’s super negative,” she said. “And a simple election is just not that negative, and it doesn’t deprive anybody of any democratic opportunity. In fact, it just gives you the chance to vote.”

Suetterlein said, “I hope the Loudoun County School Board overwhelmingly is replaced in 2023, but that that’s when I think it should happen,” and said he is concerned about going down the path of the amendment.

“I think once it enters the realm of ‘we oppose these folks so much that we are going to shorten the term,’ we are fundamentally changing our system of what we have here in the United States and here in the cCommonwealth,” he said.

The Senate failed to adopt the governor’s amendment with a vote of 18-22.

In the House, Speaker C. Todd Gilbert (R-15) declined to rule on a challenge that the amendment was constitutional, allowing a vote. Democrats had pointed out that while the state constitution allows the General Assembly to set elections for local office, “no such law shall reduce the term of any person holding an office at the time the election is held.”

Reid warned against the precedent the amendment could set, and of “complete chaos after every election.”

“What you’re basically doing is, you’re saying that at any point in time in the future, if there is a different majority in the House, they’re going to be able to have the ability to reset elections, reset terms for anyone that they deem to be having a challenge,” Reid said. “If someone is having an issue, there is a section in the Constitution that allows for the recall of that person.”

Such a recall effort is underway in Loudoun County Circuit against two School Board members.

“This School Board is using the powers delegated to them by this legislature and they’re misusing them terribly, so it’s incumbent upon us to fix it. And the fix is to allow the people of Loudoun County to express the views at the ballot box just as soon as possible,” said Roanoke Del. Christopher T. Head (R-17). “Members on the other side, Mr. Speaker, are saying that this is an attack on democracy, and you know, how is holding an election an attack on democracy?”

Falls Church Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-53) retorted that that “is exactly the scenario that the Virginia Constitution forbids, and is exactly the reason that the Speaker doesn’t’ want to rule on the constitutionality of this bill.”

“The governor doesn’t get to send out amendments and we, as the General Assembly, don’t’ get to go around to localities to say ‘you’re out of line, we don’t like your behavior, we’re shortening your terms and we’re calling a new election,’” he said. “That happens under some forms of government, right? When you have an autocracy and you don’t like what the localities are doing. Vladimir Putin can dissolve the city council and have a new mayor elected, but that’s not how we do it in a democracy.”

“The governor has made the rounds and said, this is about accountability and this is about transparency. What is transparent to me is that the people of Loudoun County are being punished for having the audacity to put the people, the students, the parents and their needs above the needs of the governor,” said Richmond Del. Candi Mundon King (D-2).

The House of Delegates agreed to the governor’s amendment by a vote of 51-48.