The ouster by voters of two incumbents on the Fairfax County School Board on Tuesday comes in the midst of a difficult budget season and in the wake of fierce, partisan fights over LGBT issues.
The board, which governs a district that educates nearly 187,000 students with a budget of $2.6 billion, will now have three Republican-backed members and nine members endorsed by Democrats. The current board has two Republicans.
In the at-large race, Jeanette Hough, a physical therapist and mother of three endorsed by Republicans, ousted incumbent Ted Velkoff, who was backed by Democrats. In the Sully District, Republican-endorsed candidate Thomas Wilson won a seat that is being vacated.
But in the Providence District, Dalia Palchik, a private schoolteacher endorsed by Democrats, defeated incumbent Patty Reed, backed by Republicans.
The turnover is taking place as the board considers increasing class sizes and cutting up to $100 million from school programs during what is likely to be another tumultuous budget season in Virginia’s largest county.
But even with tough financial prospects looming, two recent fights over lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in the district played an outsize role in campaign rhetoric.
In May, the board voted to extend protections to transgender students and staff by adding “gender identity” to its nondiscrimination policy. Neither of the board’s two Republican-endorsed members supported the move. Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) registered the sole “no” vote, and Reed abstained, calling the process to add the language rushed.
In June, the board voted to add topics about transgender issues and gender identity to the school system’s Family Life Education for older students, which riled the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative lobbying group. Schultz and Reed voted against the move.
Those issues became elements of the campaign in part because of a newsletter circulated by Andrea Lafferty, president of the Traditional Values Coalition. The newsletter outlined the board’s action beneath an image of a wolf among sheep and was headlined “Your Fairfax County School Board — Working Against You.”
It then listed Republican-backed members running for the School Board, including Hough, Schultz, Wilson and Reed — three of whom won seats.
The organization has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its vehement opposition to homosexual and transgender rights, a designation Lafferty has called “extreme and false.”
Some candidates sought to distance themselves from the newsletter. Reed said last month that she did not know Lafferty and Schultz bristled at the characterization of her name in the newsletter as “an endorsement.” Hough said she did not know about the newsletter before it was published.
Nonetheless, some said the decisions to amend the nondiscrimination policy and add transgender issues to the Family Life Education curriculum stirred consternation among some voters, who said that the board moved too quickly to make the changes.
“I think that it was maybe a straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Schultz, who criticized the moves, saying that there should be more community input.
Hough, whose opponent voted for both measures, said she sympathized with community members who said that the changes were railroaded.
“I was always clear that I was not in support of the way that the School Board went through the process in making changes without engaging the parents first,” Hough said. “My goal is that I would clearly be a voice for the community — that the parents, the teachers and the taxpayers would know that they would have input before decisions were made.”