From restrooms to rainbows, from policies to pronouns, schools are now the battleground for some of our most emotional culture clashes.
You’d never know that, though, from the school board races across much of rural Virginia.
Or, should I say, the lack of school board races.
Across Virginia, most school board races this fall are uncontested — out of 376 seats available, only 166 have multicandidate races. That’s based on a count I made of the official list of candidate filings on file with the State Board of Elections. That means 56% of the school board candidates in the state are unopposed — and that figure is actually down from four years ago. Even with heightened interest this time around, we still have more localities where there are no contested races (24) than localities where every seat is contested (16).
Those localities with no contested races are almost entirely in rural Virginia; the three exceptions are Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Portsmouth.
The localities with fully contested races are generally in the northern or eastern half of the state. West of Interstate 95 and south of Interstate 64, there are only three localities with full slates of candidates: Bland County, Buena Vista and Pulaski County. In the case of Bland County, that “full slate” means two candidates for a single seat.
You can see in the map above what a vivid contrast there is between different parts of the state.
Why is this?
I have some theories, but first I have some more facts.
For a state with such a long history, we have a short one with school board elections. It wasn’t until 1992 that Virginia allowed school board elections, the last state to do so. Arlington was given the right to elect school boards in 1947, a right the state revoked during Massive Resistance in the 1950s when Arlington dared to integrate its schools. When the General Assembly finally relented in 1992, that vote was split along geographical lines, with suburban legislators generally in favor, rural legislators generally against. We see that pattern persist today when it comes to the number of candidates. There are still 12 localities that don’t elect school boards: Franklin (city), Galax, Hanover County, Hopewell, Lynchburg, Manassas Park, Martinsville, Poquoson, Richmond County, Roanoke, Salem and Williamsburg.
The politics behind not electing school boards is interesting, to say the least. In Roanoke, it’s been those on the left who have pushed (unsuccessfully) for elected school boards. In Lynchburg, it’s been those on the right. That’s a topic for another day (actually, I addressed it earlier this year when Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, tried unsuccessfully to make it easier for Lynchburg to adopt an elected school board).
Instead, we’ll look today at the places that do elect school boards and why there are so few candidates.
First, let’s acknowledge some things: Serving in local government is often a thankless task. It’s all work and not much glamour. Serving in the state legislature is a lot of work, too, but at least legislators get a fancy honorific in front of their name. Not so with school board members. It’s a lot of reading budgets and dealing with maintenance problems. If anyone thinks they’re going to change the world (or at least their locality) by installing new curriculum standards, they’re in the wrong office. For that, I suggest you run for governor so you can appoint the state Board of Education.
Secondly, in many localities there’s still no tradition of running for the school board.
The Roanoke County School Board has seen a summer of discontent, with disputes over teachers using rainbows as decorations and one parent telling the board that the school system was full of “sexual predators disguised as teachers and staff.” In July, the school board ordered its meeting room cleared to deal with members of the public jeering the board as it took up policies for transgender students; two people were arrested, with one shouting “protect trans kids.” Clearly, the complaints about the school board are coming from both left and right. However, in the whole history of elected school boards, few people have shown any interest in actually serving on that board.
In the Vinton District, there’s only been one contested race in the past two decades — that was back in 2009. The 2021 election in the Windsor Hills District saw only the second contested race there in the past two decades. This year’s contested race in the Cave Spring District is only the second in the past two decades. In the Hollins District there wasn’t a single contested race until 2021, almost three decades after the first school board elections in the county. The Catawba District has had more frequently contested races over the years but this year has only one candidate on the ballot, although now there’s a write-in candidate.
Based on these numbers, I can’t help but say: If voters in Roanoke County are unhappy with their school board, whichever way they’re unhappy with it, they have only themselves to blame. School board seats are among the easiest to run for yet few have bothered.
Roanoke County’s experience is not unusual at all. I live in the Fincastle District of Botetourt County; it’s had only one contested school board race in the past two decades. I set out to count how many districts in the state had just one contested election since 2000 and soon gave up — there were too many. At least in my case, the one contested election was four years ago — a three-way contest. In some districts, though, that one contested election was back in 2001, as was the case in the Courthouse District in Appomattox County and the Royal Oak District in Smyth County.
Instead, I decided to focus on the 24 localities that this year have no contested races: What’s their electoral history? In those two dozen localities, I find nine districts that since 2000 haven’t had a contested school board election.
Carroll County: Sulphur Springs District
Craig County: Potts Mountain District
Lunenburg County: District 2
Lunenburg County: District 3
Page County: District 5
Rappahannock County: Piedmont District
Smyth County: Chilhowie District
Westmoreland County: District 2
Westmoreland County: District 4
While school board elections started in the ’90s, the State Board of Elections site only has data back to 2000 so that’s why I’m using that as my starting point. That means it’s possible that some of these districts have never had a contested race, I just don’t have access to that data.
Meanwhile, there are three counties on that list that converted to elected school boards more recently: Cumberland County in 2007, Greensville County in 2011 and Northampton County in 2013. That means in at least five districts I can state with certainty that there’s never been a contested school board election.
Cumberland County: District 5
Greensville County: District 1
Greensville County: District 3
Northampton County: District 2
Northampton County: District 4
In all these counties, voters overwhelmingly said they wanted an elected school board; there just hasn’t been much enthusiasm in some districts for actually running for it. In fact, over the years, there have occasionally been districts across the state where no one filed for the school board.
All this will come as quite a shock to some of our readers in, say, Northern Virginia, where the Catoctin District in Loudoun County and the Hunter Mill and Sully districts in Fairfax County have had contested school board elections throughout this century. However, even in those localities, it hasn’t been unusual for some seats to go uncontested. Those Northern Virginia localities have more contested races this year than in previous years. However, for all the political turmoil about schools in Loudoun County, one seat there this year remains uncontested.
I promised some theories, so here they are.
First, it should be no surprise that it’s harder to find candidates in rural areas than metro ones — there are simply fewer people to draw from.
For that same reason, rural voters are more likely to know their school board members. More accessible officeholders are probably less likely to draw opposition than less-accessible ones.
It’s also no surprise to me that the parental rights movement hasn’t stirred up more challengers in rural localities: The parental rights movement is basically a conservative phenomenon, and these localities are already pretty conservative. It’s not as if there are a lot of liberal officeholders to throw out.
Still, it is remarkable how few people run for school board seats across the state when schools are one of the arms of government that touch people most directly. I am reminded of the oft-quoted words of political scientist V.O. Key, who in 1949 wrote a book about Southern politics, “Southern Politics in State and Nation.” He was struck by how little political involvement there was in Virginia, a state where both laws and customs kept the voter rolls low. “By contrast,” Key wrote, “Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”