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Arlington Dems vote overwhelmingly to keep School Board caucus process

Arlington School Board at a meeting (file photo)

(Updated at 3:20 p.m.) Arlington Democrats voted loud and clear: the School Board endorsement caucus process should stay. 

Members of the Arlington County Democratic Committee voted 117-22 to use the caucus process to select which School Board candidates to endorse during the general election. ACDC met last night (Wednesday) to hear both sides of the issue and the results were announced today (Thursday).

Now, ACDC has to establish rules for the 2022 process, informed by four listening sessions, last night’s debate and an internal review. 

“Education is a top priority for us and we support great public schools that provide children with the education and curriculum they need to succeed in life,” Arlington Democrats Chair Steve Baker said today in a statement. “Arlington Democrats will always be an ally and supporter in that effort and we want our process to be as open, inclusive and equitable as possible. We know it takes hard work to achieve real results but we’re ready and committed to that process.”

This vote applies only to using the process this year, and future votes can reprise the issue, Baker told ARLnow. A seat will open up next year following School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen’s resignation announcement.

Virginia school board races are nonpartisan, so Arlington Dems can only endorse candidates — not nominate them. As part of ACDC’s process, however, candidates agree in May not to run in the general election, making the end result similar to a primary.

This was the first time the committee voted on the use of the caucus, according to deputy chief Mike Hemminger, and it came after the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, the pro-open-schools group Arlington Parents for Education and a group of self-identified Democrats separately called on ACDC to end or significantly reform the process. 

“Last night, we heard genuine concerns regarding the equity of the endorsement process,” Hemminger said today in a statement. “Systemic inequities are present in any structural system. It is vital that Arlington Democrats partner with all community members to break down barriers to access and include these voices and perspectives in each of our processes.”

Arguments against the caucus include that whiter, wealthier North Arlington residents are over-represented in it, that it discourages broad election participation, discourages federal employees from running due to the Hatch Act, effectively determines who wins in November, and makes nonpartisan officials beholden to a political party. 

But the School Board is nonpartisan only on paper, according to some committee members. They said the caucus is the best means of ensuring Democrat values prevail in Arlington against the right-wing forces trying to influence Virginia school boards.

“Republicans have shown their hands,” said School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen. “In Richmond, they’re openly promoting a public school system that serves the haves better than the have nots. We Democrats cannot let them succeed.”

Without the caucus, she said, the board could not move forward “a progressive, Democrat agenda,” including removing School Resource Officers, supporting transgender students, removing Confederate names from buildings, adding world holidays to the school calendar, building green schools and approving equity policies, among other aims. 

School Board member Cristina Diaz-Torres and former member Monique O’Grady also offered their support.

“Conservatives who lost the White House are laser-focused on using their resources to target school board elections,” O’Grady said. “Virginia was a test case for this. It’s happening in other districts and there’s a thinly veiled attempt happening here in Arlington.” 

Opponents said it favors candidates who don’t represent the kids who have fallen behind in Arlington schools. 

“We have been hearing over and over again that this is the best way for students, more specifically disadvantaged students, to have their voices heard,” said Zakiya Worthey, a mother and member of Black Parents of Arlington. “We haven’t said the obvious: students of color, Black and brown, are still behind, and Arlington Dems having a meeting down at Drew Elementary does not make for equity.”

(Drew is located in the historically Black neighborhood of Green Valley.)

Community activist Wilma Jones said the board needs new leadership to address how Black children have fallen behind their peers. 

“How are we going to get someone bold who is able to address these systemic disparities?” she said. “We’re never going to get there because they always have to be middle-of-the-road.”

NAACP Arlington Branch President Julius “JD” Spain, meanwhile, characterized the talk of Republicans taking over the Arlington School Board as “fear-mongering.”

School Board member Mary Kadera couched her support in a call to make the process “less like a primary.”

“If we continue it as is, we will be further dividing our local Democratic Party at a time when we need to pull together,” she said. “The caucus, as it stands now, is pulling this local party apart when we have other important, urgent work to do.” 

Reforms could include longer voting periods, online voting and the elimination of a written pledge that participants are required to sign before voting, says caucus supporter Jason Rylander.

The pledge certifies voters are registered Democrats who will not “support, endorse or assist” candidates who are opposed to a Democratic endorsee in the general election.

Rylander said ACDC not to abandon the good in pursuit of the perfect. 

“If eliminating the caucus alone would encourage more diverse candidates and reduce the achievement gap, I would support it, but I don’t believe it would,” he said. “If more people do run, then a very small percentage of the vote in a divided field could elect candidates who do not represent Arlington parents and voters.” 

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