The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic-backed candidates take full control of Fairfax County, Va., school board

The school board in Fairfax County, Va., will be fully controlled by Democratic Party-backed candidates after the elections of Nov. 5, 2019. Two Republican Party-back incumbents on the nominally nonpartisan board were unseated. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Candidates supported by the Democratic Party swept all seats Tuesday on the Fairfax County School Board, easily staving off challenges from Republican-backed candidates and pushing the board of Virginia’s largest school system even further left.

All 12 candidates, eight of whom are new to the Fairfax board, will begin their four-year terms in January. They will be responsible for overseeing one of the nation’s largest school systems, with nearly 190,000 students and a $3 billion annual budget.

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The only two Republican-endorsed candidates on the board, Elizabeth L. Schultz and Thomas A. Wilson, were unseated. Schultz, an outspoken conservative on the board, said in an interview that the panel has moved away from serving students’ needs and instead is “pushing a social agenda.”

“I feel sad for Fairfax County residents that they are not paying attention to the local issues,” Schultz said.

Laura Jane H. Cohen, who ousted Schultz, awaited the results with her family and volunteers from Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for policies to end gun violence, at a restaurant in Clifton.

She said she felt that her opposition to arming teachers resonated with residents.

“Voters are universally sending a message, whether in the school board election or Senate or House of Delegates, guns are not the answer to the violence we’re seeing,” said Cohen, who cited the pivotal role of students who volunteered to knock on doors on her behalf.

In the race for three at-large seats, Karen A. Keys-Gamarra, Abrar E. Omeish and Rachna Sizemore Heizer handily beat the three Republican-backed candidates. Shortly before 10 p.m, Omeish issued a statement touting her campaign’s efforts to elevate the voices of youths and members of underrepresented communities.

“This campaign represents a local movement to set a new standard of public service — to provide accessible and inclusive leadership that elevates and empowers all people to participate,” Omeish said.

The school board elections, usually low-profile contests overshadowed by other local and state races, were a bitterly partisan affair this year — even though they were nominally nonpartisan.

Republican-backed candidates attacked Democratic-backed school board members and candidates over a county policy that is intended to promote racial and socioeconomic equity, and accused the Democrats of promoting busing to balance schools by race and income.

Candidates backed by the Democratic Party said the Republicans’ claims amounted to little more than racist dog whistles, arguing that Republicans have trafficked in misinformation about school redistricting to generate fear and to prey on voters’ anxieties.

Much of the political drama emerged from a proposal the school board considered over the summer that would have updated the criteria the school system uses to draw school boundaries.

The proposal would have directed school officials to consider the socioeconomic and racial composition of a school’s student population when the district decides that a school boundary update is necessary. Redistricting also would take into account the location of schools, the safety of walking routes and transportation costs.

Several factors could prompt a boundary update under the proposal, including the opening of a new school, overcrowding or the need for equal access to programs.

Instead of approving the proposal, the board opted to hire a consultant to review the district’s boundary policies.

But Republican-endorsed candidates made the issue a focal point of their campaigns. Many were endorsed by Voices of Fairfax, a group that was founded by parents determined to prevent busing and that proclaims on its website that it wants to “stop social engineering.”

Those assertions prompted Fairfax Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand to circulate a video and letter to the community, reassuring parents, “We won’t be busing students out of their neighborhoods.”

The Fairfax County Republican Committee accused Brabrand of electioneering on behalf of school board candidates backed by the Democratic Party. Brabrand denied doing so.

Six school board incumbents decided against seeking reelection, including veteran members Jane Strauss and Ilryong Moon.

Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.

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