Parents’ petitions to recall Fairfax County School Board members gain traction

Parents who have spent the last year calling for a five-day return to school for Fairfax County Public Schools students are circulating petitions to remove three Fairfax County School Board members.

They are Springfield District representative Laura Jane Cohen, Dranesville District representative Elaine Tholen, and At-Large Member Abrar Omeish.

“Our petitions are all about the board ignoring science, dismissing the wishes of parents to have kids in school, and putting politics (unions) before our children,” the Open FCPS Coalition group told Reston Now. “We have people of all walks of life — young and old, with kids and without kids signing. People were afraid to sign at first because they didn’t want to get involved. But as more time passed, and people got disappointed about the school board lying to us, they started signing.”

They admitted that the campaign faces long odds. According to Ballotpedia, Virginia has seen just one successful recall campaign in at least the past decade, with the majority of efforts — including one against former Mason District School Board representative Sandy Evans — failing to reach a circuit court.

This parent coalition has been around since November and started distributing petition templates to other counties around that time. But the momentum did not pick up until mid-February, members said.

“December and January, people still weren’t getting out much and if they were, it wasn’t to come and sign a petition,” the group said. “Many people who sign now sign because of other things that they are frustrated with, but we are just glad people are recognizing our efforts.”

The Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a bipartisan organization.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, donor records show that its largest gifts have come from former Republican governor candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America Inc., a conservative group that has been vocal in school reopenings. Its largest expenditure has been for signature collection services, an expense that went to a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm with ties to N2 America.

“Anyone who wants to donate is welcome to…If the Dem party wants to donate we surely will take it,” the group said. “But it seems that though many Dems have signed and silently support, some are afraid to stand up for open schools. Thankfully we have Dems in our group who are bold and brave and know that nothing about the recall is personal or about politics. It is about what is moral.”

Coalition members aimed to collect enough signatures to recall at least one school board member by the end of this school year, which concluded on Friday (June 11).

The coalition chose Cohen, Tholen and Omeish after watching school board meetings and determining only one member had a record of voting and speaking that prioritized reopening over other issues: Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, according to the group’s website.

So, members narrowed down their targets to the two members who were elected with the fewest number of votes — Cohen and Tholen.

“Based on this discovery, the voters in their districts would likely provide the most support for the removal effort,” according to the website.

When reached for comment, Tholen said she centers all her work and decision-making on what is best for students.

“I am busy at this point fulfilling my job as a school board member,” she said. “I am closing out this school year, celebrating our class of 2021, planning for summer programs and preparing for fall when we will welcome all students in person five days per week.”

Cohen, meanwhile, said that her “focus is, has been, and always will be ensuring our students have the best opportunity to be successful in our schools.”

They are including Omeish, an at-large member, to widen the pool of potential signatories. Omeish said she supported data-driven decisions that took into account whether FCPS was prepared.

“At some points, I was fighting hard to stay closed and at other points, I was fighting to stay open,” she said. “My commitment without question has always been about balancing the safety and wellbeing of our students for their academic success.”

Volunteers have been hosting events to garner enough on-paper signatures — equal to at least 10% of the total votes cast in that school board member’s election.

“We have validated every signature to make sure it is legit so if something goes awry, it wasn’t because we didn’t follow the rules,” the group said.

The petition to remove Cohen will need at least 4,000 signatures; for Tholen, the number is 3,600, and for Omeish, 27,000. As of last week, the group had more than two-thirds of the signatures needed to recall Cohen and has 550 signatures to go for Tholen.

It has also garnered one-third of the signatures needed to request to oust Omeish, but the parents said she is not their main focus, as it would require more signatures.

The petitions request a judge to review these board members’ records to determine if they were “negligent or incompetent in the performance of their duties for failing to offer in-person education for all students, but especially for children with special needs,” according to the website.

If a judge rules in favor of any of the petitions, a trial will be held to determine if the school board member should remain in office, the website said. If a judge rules in favor of the coalition, a special election will be held.

“We are working hard to find parents of children in the school system to potentially replace these members if a recall were to be successful in court,” the group said.

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