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Virginia judge dismisses parents’ recall petition against Fairfax school board member

A judge on Friday dismissed a petition to recall Fairfax County School Board member Elaine Tholen after some parents said she failed to keep students in classrooms during the pandemic.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Richard Gardiner granted a motion filed by Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley to dismiss the recall. Hingeley asserted he had independently checked into the allegations against Tholen (Dranesville), and discovered that many were untrue.

That argument proved persuasive. In a court document Friday, Gardiner wrote that he is dismissing the case “upon the Commonwealth’s position that the petition is not based on facts establishing probable cause for removal.”

The parent association that filed the petition against Tholen, which calls itself the Open FCPS Coalition, is an advocacy group that formed during the pandemic to push for reopening schools. In the petition, parents accused Tholen of incompetence and of neglecting her duty because she played a part in the school system’s move to shut down physical classrooms during the pandemic.

The coalition had to gather more than 5,000 signatures to bring its petition before a judge who — per Virginia law — was then tasked with deciding whether the petition merited a trial. Gardiner’s dismissal Friday puts an end to the recall effort.

Virginia parents gather enough signatures for petition to recall school board member over school closures

“It is a shame that the voices of thousands of parents have been silenced by a Commonwealth’s Attorney, who just like the School Board, is more interested in politics than the wellbeing of our kids,” Dee O’Neal, founder of the coalition, said in a statement.

The coalition is also seeking recalls against two other school board members — Abrar Omeish (At Large) and Laura Jane Cohen (Springfield) — but has not garnered enough signatures to bring those petitions before a judge.

In a statement, Tholen said she is “gratified” by the judge’s decision. She called the recall petition an attempt by “a small group of people unhappy about Covid restrictions” to force their preferred policies onto the school board.

“This legal case has been an ordeal for me, but our students have been struggling through a much greater one,” she said. “Please, let us put these divisive events behind us and work together to give our students the positive, undivided attention they deserve.”

A Fairfax school board spokeswoman said in a statement that board members are also “very pleased.” The judge “saw it for what it was — an attempt by a small number of people to substitute their judgment for that of the full elected School Board,” the spokeswoman said.

Parent Rory Cooper, who has been an outspoken advocate for recalling Tholen, called the judge’s decision an embarrassment. “I’m proud of every mom and dad who stood out in the cold and heat collecting thousands of voter signatures,” he said.