Members of the crowd filling the school board meeting were on their feet, shouting at the politicians sitting on the dais. The voices had tinges of outrage.
“Shame on you,” one person yelled. “Tyranny,” screamed another.
For what are normally staid proceedings — with Fairfax County School Board members handing out certificates to long-
tenured teachers and honoring Boy Scouts — the hearing last month turned contentious as the board considered expanding the school system’s sex-education curriculum to include lessons on gender identity and transgender issues.
Casting her no vote, Springfield district representative Elizabeth Schultz rose to her feet as the vast majority of those in attendance gave her a rousing ovation. Never mind that the measure passed in a 10-to-2 vote. Even in the lopsided defeat, a woman’s voice called out above the din: “Thank you, Elizabeth!”
Schultz is used to being on the losing end of votes as the mostly liberal board’s brash and loquacious conservative, but she reveled in the rare public appreciation as hundreds of parents in the audience applauded her stance. The mother of three current Fairfax County public school students, Schultz said she voted on behalf of parents and their right to opt their children out of sex-ed classes that cover sensitive material.
“Everywhere I go, parents tell me they feel disenfranchised,” Schultz said. “They feel lost in the system because they don’t know who to turn to. They feel like everything is a battle. It shouldn’t be. . . . It’s as if common sense and pragmatism have been sold out for political ideology.”
Virginia’s largest county has more than 1 million residents, accounting for 1 in every 7 votes across the state, and it reliably backs Democrats. Though Fairfax School Board positions are technically nonpartisan, 10 of the 12 members received Democratic Party endorsements in the 2011 election. Schultz and Patty Reed (Providence) were endorsed by the Republican Party.
But the recent transgender vote — and Schultz’s stance — have invigorated conservative voters. Trying to capture the momentum, Schultz, who is up for reelection in November, is pushing for more Republican-backed candidates to seek positions on the board, believing that now might be the time for a major shift.
Schultz has embraced her role as a “common sense” conservative, carrying the weight of offering the counterarguments to many proposals, often on her own. She rarely sides with her colleagues, who in turn almost never agree with her.
“I often feel like I’m cutting the path through the jungle with a sickle,” she said. “I’m not going to go along to get along. . . . My voters aren’t going to care how often I get together and have lunch with my fellow board members. It’s: ‘What did you accomplish? What did you do?’ That’s the record that is far more meaningful to me.”
Early in her tenure, she successfully led a movement to honor high school graduates heading into the military. Last year, she helped the Fairfax administration fix a state accreditation issue by extending class time for elementary schools to meet the standard minimum of 990 hours of instruction.
But more often, Schultz’s motions fail.
She has sought to have Veterans Day included as a holiday on the school calendar, to no avail. During the recent budget cycle, she offered three motions for consideration to amend the spending plan; all failed.
Andrea Lafferty, president of the conservative Traditional Values Coalition and a leader in the Fairfax grass-roots movement against the transgender issue, said that despite her loss on that subject, Schultz showed leadership to the parents who came to the June meeting.
“They were glad that someone stood up for them and their values and their children,” Lafferty said. “There were crowds saying how much they appreciated her.”
Several members of the School Board said in interviews that Schultz’s strong opinions have made her a divisive figure since she won election handily in 2011. A daughter of a naval officer, she was a member of the Young Republicans at James Madison University and founded the Republican Women of Clifton advocacy group. She’s Roman Catholic, a member of the National Rifle Association (on teachers arming themselves to protect their classrooms, Schultz said: “If a teacher wanted to bring a gun to school and had a carry permit, they should bring it”) and regards Ronald Reagan as her hero.
But Schultz bristled recently when a blog that covers Virginia liberal politics labeled her a “rabid right-winger.”
“It’s just because I’m not playing the rubber-stamp school board member,” Schultz said. “If you don’t do exactly as they want you to do, then the name-calling starts. That’s what’s unfortunate.”
Longtime member Jane Strauss (Dranesville) said the board’s work, in theory, should not be political.
“Everybody has to be big enough to vote on the issues and not on the personalities,” Strauss said. “She is a hard worker and she is smart, and I have to respect that. But I don’t agree with her positions.”
Reed, the board’s other GOP-backed member, said that sometimes Schultz’s particular way of speaking can work against her.
“Often, people might react to her style or the fact that she is not as concise, more so perhaps than her ideas, which typically are quite reasoned,” Reed said. “It’s a style issue that, just watching body language, I see people reacting to that. Some people like to repeat themselves and use a lot of words and a lot of passion, but others of us don’t like to do business that way.”
Schultz says she treats her position as nonpartisan: “Regardless of your political beliefs, if you win you have to represent everybody. So that’s what I do.”
Reed said the 10 Democratic-backed members on the board isolate her and Schultz in terms of leadership positions; neither has been chairman or vice chairman since the term began in 2012.
“Elizabeth and I would never even be considered for chair or vice chair,” Reed said. “It’s political. I guess majority rules.”
Schultz said she sees her role as the voice of parents like those who felt ignored by other members of the board during the transgender vote.
“The petty politics of individual board members wins the day every time instead of good common business sense and policy approach and informed decision-making,” Schultz said. “I serve the people who elected me and even the people who didn’t.”