The partisan divide has been growing for awhile now, but the extreme rhetoric Donald Trump repeatedly uses has people rightfully frustrated with the state of political discourse in the country. The bigotry and misinformation Trump uses has almost become commonplace now at the federal level, but most folks remained hopeful that elected officials could come together to get things done at the local level. The 2019 state and local elections here in Virginia, however, illustrate how the GOP has allowed Trump’s divide and conquer strategy to invade local politics.
One of the most obvious examples of this can be found in the races for Fairfax County School Board. The conservatives appear to have made it their life’s mission to scare people into thinking liberals are going to “bus students to distant schools” in the name of increasing diversity, blatantly lie about their opponents and their own record, demean the county’s non-political staff, and even mock students with disabilities. They do all of this while running for what’s supposed to be a non partisan board and claiming they’re not interested in playing political games.
While candidates who aren’t currently on the board are certainly participating in the divisive rhetoric, it’s been the two incumbent conservatives who are leading the charge to bring Trump style politics into the county’s school system.
Tom Wilson currently represents the Sully District and has been attempting to portray himself as being above the political fray. He even declared he supposedly wasn’t a political hack because he believes “children don’t walk through school doors with a D or an R on their forehead” at a recent forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. The problem is, he’s been receiving a lot of heat for having a poor attendance record and promoting an extreme agenda when he can even be bothered to show up.
There have been multiple excuses as to why he supposedly missed so many meetings, but the answer seems to vary depending on who he’s talking to. The one he used with me on Facebook was that it was actually “fake news” and he only missed some meetings while his son was sick. While everybody certainly realizes a child’s health takes priority and he’d have a valid excuse if that were indeed the case, that’s not what he previously told people was the reason he missed so many meetings. Perhaps realizing that nobody was buying his new excuse, he’s now deleted those comments (but I grabbed a screenshot) and is telling people that it’s okay he completely missed meetings and arrived late and left early during others because it’s “part time pay” and “as you know if you’ve watched school board meetings, they can be quite long.”
In addition to channeling Trump through using the “fake news” messaging, he also accused his opponent of lying about his attendance even though public record shows she was telling the truth. This appears to be a desperate attempt to muddy the water and distract from his record while making his opponent look bad. That doesn’t seem like the type of behavior someone who’s truly only interested in serving the students would be modeling while running for School Board.
Elizabeth Schultz has joined Wilson in channeling Trump and is known for being extremely difficult to get along with. Not only was she caught blatantly lying during a forum and frequently demean folks who disagree with her, but she’s even bragged to the media about how she’s supposedly “not going to go along to get along.” A prime example of how she refuses to “get along” with her fellow school board members came during the school board meeting on September 26, 2019.
That meeting featured a discussion about adjusting the boundaries between McLean and Langley High Schools. The changes would make it so students who live on the border of the extremely overcrowded McLean High’s territory would attend the nearby Langley High, which actually has hundreds of empty seats and could potentially lose staff if the school doesn’t get more students. The neighborhoods that’d be impacted already have relationships with the communities that attend Langley, so the move simply makes sense. But that didn’t stop Schultz from screaming at board members, demeaning staff members, and suggesting there was some sort of vast left wing conspiracy taking place.
At various events throughout the community, several conservative candidates for school board like Zia Tompkins have claimed the School Board only wanted to address the overcrowded population at McLean High School as “part of a sweetheart deal for outgoing school board member Jane Strauss.” Schultz echoed those sentiments at the September 26th meeting by claiming the school board wanted to “slide somebody else in” before addressing schools like Centreville and Chantilly High (which are indeed overcrowded, but simply don’t have the easy solution like there is with McLean and Langley). She even went as far as suggesting staff members were changing reports in order to show schools were “mysteriously not as overcrowded as [they] were last year.”
While she was spewing all these allegations, she managed to stop for a second to scream “stop shaking your head, Ms Strauss” in a manner that suggest she was disgusted by someone who was silently and calmly sitting a few seats away and listening to the smear campaign. This is just the latest in a long history of Schultz doing whatever she can to sew a little discord on the School Board.
Of course, the incumbents aren’t the only conservative candidates for School Board who are making a point of spreading misinformation while launching attacks and trying to be as divisive as possible. As mentioned before, Zia Tompkins (who’s running in the Braddock District against incumbent Megan McLaughlin) has joined the cause of putting partisanship ahead of real solutions.
During the school board forum hosted by the League of Women Voters last weekend, Tompkins was quick to prove he was willing to play fast and lose with the rules of decorum while at a non-partisan event. While talking about One Fairfax, for example, he claimed this was just liberals way of conducting “social engineering” and suggested it would result in busing students to far off schools in the name of diversity. This is rhetoric that’s similar to that used by people who opposed school integration during the Civil Rights movement and is far from the truth of what’s going on with any school boundary discussions.
Zia also used a portion of his opening statement to suggest members of the school system’s staff were overpaid, weren’t doing their jobs correctly, and only interested in some sort of partisan agenda. This clearly isn’t the type of soaring discourse we’d expect from someone who wants to develop good working relationships with people who have devoted their life to the education system, but he didn’t stop there.
Tompkins went on to say folks who disagreed with him were “drinking the Kool Aid” and that having the school board put forward policies was actually just an attempt to “micromanage” the school system (ummmm….the school board is supposed to set policy. That’s what it’s there for). The clear implication of his remarks was that he believed anybody who didn’t agree with him was crazy and didn’t deserve respect. He further illustrated his contempt for having to engage with people who might disagree with him by spreading misinformation in a desperate attempt to discredit McLaughlin and anybody else who had an opposing opinion.
As if going after other candidates and the school system’s staff isn’t bad enough, Vinson Palathingal decided he’d go after students with disabilities during a recent debate for the at large candidates. While discussing accommodations that could be made to help students with learning disabilities thrive, Vinson said he doesn’t think there should be anything done for “silly things like ADD” and claimed it was wrong to give them more time to complete tests.
As Palathingal faced a lot of public outcry after the debate, he started claiming folks were lying about what he said — a common tactic among the conservative school board candidates this year whenever they’re caught doing something unpopular. When video evidence and in depth breakdowns of what happened were published online, he changed his tone and then claimed it was okay because he was speaking as the parent of someone with ADHD. He even made sure his son weighed in on the controversy.
With all the channeling of Donald Trump that the Republicans have been doing in Fairfax County, Vinson’s remarks reminded me of when Trump mocked a reporter who has a congenital joint condition. The complete and utter disrespect that Trump displayed during that press conference is the same type of attitude conservatives have taken in their campaigns for the Fairfax County School Board. Our school system is one of the top performing districts in the entire country and deserves better leadership than what the Fairfax County GOP is offering right now.