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Spotsylvania makes an offer to a controversial choice for superintendent

Fraught school board meetings have become more common as the country has become more polarized

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Within five minutes of the start of the school board meeting Friday evening, multiple board members were shouting at one another. Within the next five minutes, a board member’s attempt to speak was repeatedly interrupted by another member loudly saying, “It’s disgusting,” and, “Shame on you,” and, “Shame, shame, shame.”

The chaos came as the Spotsylvania County School Board met for one of their most important decisions: choosing the next leader for the public schools in the Virginia district. And it encapsulated a dramatic shift at many such meetings across the country, in which once-sleepy, well-mannered procedural meetings have become flash points for communities polarized over cultural issues such as parental and transgender rights.

The deeply divided board voted Friday to offer a contract for superintendent after several weeks of turmoil, including several volatile meetings.

The decision to offer the top schools job to Mark Taylor came the day after some parents raised concerns about what they called questionable social media posts by the candidate at a Virginia Board of Education meeting this week. The board was considering granting a license to Taylor, who lacks educational experience but has been promoted by some supporters as a proven leader with business acumen.

Earlier this week, the county sheriff’s office announced that after mid-October it would no longer send deputies to provide security at school board meetings.

Last fall, the then-interim-leader of the National School Boards Association sought federal help in providing protection at local school meetings, citing threats and disruptions that had been reported across the country. The group quickly apologized for that action, emphasizing the importance of local control, and replaced its leadership. But the kinds of events that had prompted concern — extreme language, threats and physical altercations — have continued to disrupt communities as the pandemic and cultural rifts intensified.

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In Spotsylvania, the hotly contested superintendent search began this year after the longtime schools leader was abruptly fired by a board that included a new bloc of members, a move many saw as a symbol of the rising clout of parents advocating for a greater voice in school decisions.

The new majority has led to several 4-3 votes.

They are staunch in their religious and political mandate and beliefs, board member Nicole Cole said by phone Saturday of the majority bloc. “It’s a wall on their side.”

Board members Rabih Abuismail, Lisa A. Phelps, April Gillespie, the vice chair, and Kirk Twigg, the chairman, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.

This week was particularly intense. On Monday, people packed into a board meeting, some having to stand, some holding up notepads with messages when they wanted to object without disrupting the meeting, according to a board member, some booing when people tried to make public comment were cut off by the board.

On Wednesday, the sheriff announced deputies would no longer be involved in routine security at the meetings.

Spotsylvania Sheriff Roger L. Harris wrote in a letter to board members that the department would still respond in emergency situations but that “ … our deputies have on numerous occasions been put in a position to side with one or more members, regarding ‘disruptive’ citizens.”

Harris and a spokesman for the department did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Saturday.

“I am concerned because I have had cause to be fearful,” because of threats made against her on the board, Cole said. “At [the] same time I am also glad the sheriff took that stance,” she said, because deputies shouldn’t be there to prevent people from speaking their opinion at a public meeting.

On Thursday, supporters and detractors of Taylor traveled to Richmond where the Virginia Board of Education was considering granting a division superintendent license to Taylor.

Rich Lieberman, a parent who ran an unsuccessful campaign for one of the school board seats last fall, said Taylor had posted things on social media that were racist and homophobic and opposed to public schools.

“My kid deserves better,” Lieberman said in a phone interview Saturday. “All kids in Spotsylvania deserve better.”

Taylor did not immediately return requests for comment Saturday. In an interview with ABC-7 News this week, Taylor said he hadn’t seen the posts in question, so he couldn’t tell the reporter whether those were his or not. He said he would never knowingly or intentionally post something that was racist, saying, “that’s not my values system. I don’t believe in that.”

He has said that parents should have a greater voice in schools and have a choice about how their children are educated.

Laurie Szymanski, a substitute teacher, said at the state board meeting that Taylor had been maligned and his character assassinated. She praised his positive track record as a county administrator, his intelligence, and his commitment to transparency. “His accomplishments speak to his ability to provide the leadership and results that Spotsylvania needs right now,” she said.

The state board voted Thursday to grant the license.

On Friday, Spotsylvania school board member Cole sparked a dispute at the board meeting as she attempted to read aloud an email that she said was from one of Taylor’s daughters, writing that he was unfit for the job because of his opposition to public schools, lack of experience and religious and political agenda — and that he was only being considered because of his close friendship with the board’s chairman. The letter also criticized the home-school education the woman said she had received from Taylor.

The minority bloc of board members attempted to adjourn the meeting, but were outvoted.

The vote on the contract was taken: Four to three.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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