Column – School Board turnover was predictable

Published 5:01 pm Friday, December 9, 2022

You could see the shakeup of Isle of Wight County’s School Board coming from a mile away.

Or at least a year away.

I wrote in this space in October 2021 that newcomer John Collick’s upstart bid to oust then-School Board Chairwoman Jackie Carr in that fall’s election would be a bellwether for 2022.

“If Collick, who moved to the county in January, defeats Carr, a lifelong county resident, beloved former principal of Carrsville Elementary School and five-year school board member, it will signal a revolution that will in short order reshape the school board and hasten the departure of Superintendent Jim Thornton, whether by his choice or the board’s,” I predicted at the time.

Carr didn’t make it to Election Day in 2021, bailing out of a race that was fast tilting Collick’s way. Thornton followed suit a few months later, blaming critics of the school division’s equity and inclusion initiatives for his early retirement.

Carr and Thornton, after initially underestimating their critics, saw the handwriting on the wall: a voter backlash in the fall of 2022 that would give Collick two like-minded colleagues and an ideological majority on the five-member School Board. The reshaped board, including Jason Maresh and Mark Wooster, who trounced their incumbent opponents last month, convenes for the first time this week with a clear mandate for change.

Those lamenting a “conservative takeover” of Isle of Wight County Schools can direct much of the blame to Thornton, Carr and other School Board incumbents, who incorrectly assessed 2021 grumbling about equity and inclusion efforts as the work of a few malcontents trying to inject national politics into local schools. The IWCS contingent wasn’t alone. Terry McAuliffe did the same in the simultaneous gubernatorial race and blew an election that nobody thought he could lose in a state that had seemingly “gone blue.”

McAuliffe’s declaration during a debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” started Republican Glenn Youngkin on his way to the massive upset.

There’s an honest debate to be had about the role of educators in thorny topics like race relations and gender identity, but the public education bureaucracy, personified by McAuliffe and Thornton, was dismissive, defensive and indignant. Centrist and conservative parents, who are a solid majority of the state’s electorate outside Richmond and the northern Virginia suburbs, didn’t like being told that instruction topics and student reading materials were none of their business. That was especially true here in Isle of Wight.

New Superintendent Theo Cramer understands the dynamics much more astutely. Early in his tenure, he’s listened intently to any stakeholder with a concern — and acted quickly when they make a good point, such as the inappropriateness of sexually explicit instructional content linked on a middle school’s website.

His relationship with the overhauled School Board will be interesting to watch.

 

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is steve.stewart@smithfieldtimes.com.