In Virginia, school board positions are officially nonpartisan, meaning none of the 16 candidates running for Prince William School Board this year have party affiliations next to their names on the ballot.
But 13 of the 16 local candidates are running with party endorsements, and that can make a big difference when it comes to campaign donations, volunteer support and, to some extent, the issues on which candidates say they’ll focus if elected on Nov. 5.
Democrats took the majority of the Prince William County School Board for the first time in 2015. This year, they are hoping to maintain or boost their 5 to 3 split by running candidates in all eight races for the first time in recent memory.
Republicans, meanwhile, will have to win all five of the races in which they have candidates to win back a majority on the board.
Given the county’s voting record since 2016, when Democrat Hillary Clinton took Prince William with 57% of the vote, and the Democratic school board candidates’ more than two-to-one fundraising advantage, that could be an uphill climb.
School board candidates endorsed by Democrats raised about $212,000 this year – more than twice as much overall than the $79,000 raised by candidates endorsed by Republicans. Democrats also had more cash on hand as of Sept. 30, about $158,000 compared to the Republicans’ $23,000.
Local Democrats have been particularly energized since President Trump’s election, winning every countywide race since 2015. In 2018, Prince William voters picked Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine over hometown Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, by a margin of 32 points.
But the results were closer in last November’s special election for school board chairman, which was necessitated by the March 2018 resignation of former school board chair Ryan Sawyers.
Dr. Babur Lateef, a Democrat, won with 48% of the votes cast in a three-way race against Gainesville School Board Representative Alyson Satterwhite, a Republican, and independent Stanley Bender. Satterwhite took 41.4% of the vote, while Bender garnered 9.5%.
The same three candidates will face off for school board chair this year. But voter turnout is traditionally lower in Virginia’s “off-off-year” local elections – usually about 30 percent. And that could make the partisan endorsements even more important, said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies.
As campaigning becomes more expensive, accepting partisan endorsements has become more common for candidates running for posts at all levels of government, Farnsworth said.
It’s “a shortcut for a lot of voters who may never know much more about [a candidate] than what team is behind them,” Farnsworth said. “If you can tap into a donor base for one party or the other, that can help pay the [campaign] bills and get your voters out. It’s also a reason independents don’t do very well. They’re at a disadvantage.”
Jacqueline Gaston, one of three independent school board candidates this year, said running without a partisan endorsement is a lot of work and a little “lonely.”
“As an independent, you have to run your campaign 100 percent on your own,” Gaston said. “You can’t ride on anyone else’s coattails.”
Still, Gaston said she believes school board members really should be nonpartisan, both during campaign season and in office.
“I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat, everybody should be making decisions based on what’s best for children,” Gaston said. “We need everybody to share their ideas, and everybody should be working together.”
Despite Prince William County School Board members’ partisan affiliations, most board votes …
Several school board candidates shared that sentiment – that school board decisions should be free of partisan politics -- in answers to queries about their reasons for seeking their party’s endorsements and the goals they hope to pursue if elected.
Satterwhite, the Republican nominee who has served as the school board’s Gainesville representative since 2012, said she’s trying again for the chairman’s post to continue working toward reducing classroom sizes, improving school safety and advocating for students, parents and teachers.
When asked how her decision-making has been affected by her partisan affiliation, Satterwhite said her sense of “fiscal responsibility to use our taxpayers’ hard-earned money wisely” reflects her values as a Republican. Satterwhite is the mother of four grown children who attended county schools.
Lateef, a Manassas ophthalmologist and father of four, said his focus on equity across the school division reflects his values as a Democrat. Lateef said the school board’s recent promise to boost funding to schools with more economically disadvantaged students and to work toward renovating and modernizing older school buildings are good examples.
“These commitments reflect my values to equity and opportunity for all,” Lateef said.
Lateef said he’s running for his first full term on the board to improve safety and security; student success; teacher salaries and school facilities.
Bender did not respond for requests for comment for this article.
Two former teachers are vying for the Brentsville District seat, which is vacant due to three-term board member Gil Trenum’s decision not to seek re-election.
Shawn Brann is the Republican-endorsed candidate, while Adele Jackson is backed by the local Democrats. Brann spent seven years teaching English at Woodbridge Senior High School and now works as an editor for a defense contractor. Jackson was a special education teacher for 14 years before leaving her job earlier this year to run for the school board.
Both downplayed their political endorsements, saying their experiences as teachers and parents will have more of an impact on their decisions than more party endorsements.
Jackson said her education philosophy is “equity-based” and “student-centered.”
“My decisions in matters relating to our schools begin and end with what is the best for our students, teachers and staff, and community,” Jackson said.
Brann said he considers himself conservative but “believes strongly” the school board should be nonpartisan. He said political ideology will not affect his votes.“Instead, it will be based on the feedback that I receive from the constituents in my community,” Brann said.
Deutsch is a digital communications and marketing analyst, while Zargarpur is a music teacher at Keene Mill Elementary in Fairfax County and Gaston is an instructional specialist for Fairfax County Schools, a position focused on helping special education students prepare for college and careers.
Deutsch said his Republican values are reflected in his belief that government should be transparent and accountable and not waste tax dollars. Deutsch also pointed to his “willingness to hold the [the school division] administration accountable and a willingness to do so respectfully.”
“We believe elected officials should be effective policy makers to craft solutions instead of blaming other governmental bodies or offering empty promises,” he said.
Zargarpur, meanwhile, said she sees education through a lens of equity, which she said tends to be“championed by those in the Democratic Party.”
“Equity issues affect school boundaries, funding, disciplinary policy, school-to-prison pipeline and educational programming opportunities,” she said.
If elected, Zargarpur said she would work to make school division polices more sensitive to students’ social and emotional needs and would work to bolster preschool programs and those that help students become more ready for college and careers.
Gaston said she hopes to build on recent improvements in special education, saying she hopes to be a voice for parents and teachers of special ed students.
Gainesville District: In the Gainesville District, Jen Wall, a Republican and former legislative research associate, faces Patricia Kuntz, a Democrat and former teacher who works for Catholic Charities.
Wall said she’s running to boost teacher pay, improve school security, move students out of trailers and promote fiscal responsibility.
“Partisanship can blind representatives to the merits of good policy,” Wall said. “Many people, like me, are tired of the hyper-partisan nature of government, including the school board. So, while I am indeed a Republican, I will always put students before party.”
Kuntz said she will strive to improve student success and will work to reduce class sizes and remove trailers by working with the board of supervisors. She also listed retaining teachers and boosting their pay as goals if elected.
“I believe education is a non-partisan issue,” Kuntz said. “My decisions will be based on my experience as a teacher, my collaborations with many school administrators through my career, and as a parent. I firmly believe in the professionalism of educators. They are highly educated and extremely hard working. I will always support them.”
George is an intelligence analyst for the Department of Defense and the father of three daughters who attended Prince William schools. This is his second bid for school board. He said he’s running to improve teachers’ “financial and professional recognition” and to protect their instructional flexibility. He also hopes to strengthen the school division’s career and technical programs and encourage all schools to connect with their communities.
George said schools could use the help of their communities “to rally around and help them out.” George said he would strive to be active with the schools in the Neabsco District by visiting each one six to eight times a year.
“If a parent has an issue, I try to find out what the issue is and direct them to the right resources,” George said. Too many parents, don’t received the right answers or don’t know where to go for help. “I want to be their voice ... a voice that cares,” George said.
Raulston was first elected to the school board in 2015. She has lived in Dale City for six years and has three grandchildren who attend county schools. On her website, Raulston said she will continue to “vigorously advocate for students’ and parents’ interests by asking principals to have an open door policy and never forget the dedicated teachers and staff who educate our children.”
Occoquan District: In the Occoquan District, incumbent Lillie Jessie, a Democrat, faces a challenge from Karen Boyd, a Republican. Jessie spent 30 years as a former Title 1 supervisor, principal and assistant principal in Prince William County schools. Jessie said she’s seeking re-election to improve students’ college and career readiness and to promote “infrastructure equity.”
“There needs to be a ‘world class’ 21st century high school on the eastern corridor and improved infrastructure for older schools,” Jessie said of eastern Prince William.
“I do not see party when I work with students. There are ideals that the Democratic Party stands for that align with my thinking. They include closing the achievement gap and equity for all,” Jessie said.“Democrats have been at the forefront when it comes to desegregation of schools.”
Boyd has 22 years’ experience in education. She is former high school English teacher and currently serves as assistant principal for a Fairfax County high school. She said she’s running to bring “ethical leadership back to the school board” and to improve communication with Occoquan residents and ensure school board decisions are “based on data,” made in the best interests of students and are traceable back to the school division’s goals.
Boyd downplayed her Republican endorsement and said her roles as a mom and educational leader will have the largest impact on her decisions if elected.
“School board policies should be about the kids, not politics,” she said. “…Voters should be informed about the candidates running for office and vote in alignment with their own beliefs and values rather than solely upon political affiliations.”
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com