The parents’ rights movement advocating for families as children’s first and primary educators — and also backing generally anti-LGBTQ+ policies — saw some notable wins in school board races in Southwest Virginia.
In Roanoke County, the school board will hold its conservative majority, while in Pulaski County, conservative candidates won four of five open seats on the board.
But voters were narrowly divided in Montgomery County, with longtime incumbent board member Penny Franklin holding on to her seat by fewer than 100 votes against a conservative challenger. And though GOP-backed candidates lost races for two other board seats, one of them did so by just 20 votes in a race that likely will qualify for a recount.
Though school board elections are nonpartisan affairs in Virginia, candidates have been increasingly leaning on support from political parties to entice voters who may typically have little interest in local elections.
School policies for transgender children was one of the hottest topics during the campaign season due to the timing of the state Department of Education’s release of new, more restrictive guidelines for transgender students. Roanoke County was one of the earliest school divisions in the commonwealth to adopt the new version of the policies wholesale.
In some localities, school board meetings became rancorous affairs throughout the pandemic era, with large crowds and impassioned speakers from both ends of the political divide. In Roanoke County, three meeting attendees were arrested within two months, two on charges of trespassing after an unruly crowd was ordered to clear the room, and one on a disorderly conduct charge, for chastising the board’s treatment of speakers. During both meetings, the board unanimously passed policies — one to limit pride-themed classroom decor, the other to adopt the Youngkin administration’s new rules for transgender students — despite nearly all public comments on both nights asking them to refrain.
Here’s a look at the results in several counties where school board races were particularly polarized.
Roanoke County will keep a conservative majority on its school board, with two Republican-endorsed candidates winning handily over challengers who didn’t receive financial support from a political party.
Board chair Brent Hudson held his Catawba District seat easily against write-in candidate Samantha Newell, who started campaigning in August. Hudson, a major in the sheriff’s office who was endorsed by the local GOP, took 85% of the vote.
In the race for the open Cave Spring board seat, Republican-backed Shelley Clemons defeated Mary Wilson with 57% of the vote. More than 6,100 votes were cast in that district, which includes the Starkey and Clearbrook areas.
Newell and Wilson had drawn support from the county’s LGBTQ+ community and its allies during the monthslong debate this summer over the implementation of the new state transgender policy.
Write-in candidates have an uphill battle in Virginia when they’re running against an established candidate. Of the 25 write-in candidates who won school board seats in the commonwealth in the previous four years, only two ran against established candidates.
In Montgomery County, the race was marred by improperly disclosed signage paid for by a prominent local Republican couple. The signs featured three school board candidates among others running for local office, though none of the three candidates were successful.
Penny Franklin narrowly defended her District B seat, which she’s held for 20 years, with 50.6% of the vote. Her challenger was Mark Miear, a former superintendent of the school division who was unanimously fired by the school board in 2022 after a verbal altercation with a staffer about his rights as a parent to make choices involving his transgender child. Miear, who received endorsements from far-right groups Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project PAC, took just over 49% of the vote. Just 67 votes separated them as of 11 p.m., with provisional votes still to be counted.
Another close race took place in District E between Derek Rountree and GOP-backed Lindsay Rich. Rountree won 50% of the vote with 1,216 votes, while Rich won 49% with 1,197 votes — just a 19-vote difference as of 11 p.m. Rich, a parents’ rights advocate, ran her campaign almost exclusively on the topic of restrictions for transgender students using school bathrooms and playing on sports teams.
Under state law, the Rich-Rountree race could qualify for a recount if the margin of defeat doesn’t increase significantly when provisional votes are tallied; as of 11 p.m., it stood at 0.79%. A candidate can request a recount if the margin is 1% or less after all absentee and provisional ballots have been counted and the results have been certified by the state.
The margin between Franklin and Miear stood at 1.5% at 11 p.m.
Edward Gitre, who won endorsements from Montgomery County Democrats and the Montgomery County Education Association PAC, won the open District G seat with 67% of the vote. Jason Massie, who struggled to reclaim the key facets of his campaign after being embroiled in the county sign scandal, received nearly 32% of the vote.
Laura Purcell won 96% of the vote in her unopposed race for the District F seat.
Pulaski County saw a GOP-backed candidate run for each of the five school board seats up for election this year.
Four of them — Billy Williams in the Draper District, Gina Paine in the Ingles District, Joshua Taylor in the Massie District and Sabrina Smith Cox in the Robinson District — easily defeated their incumbent opponents.
The fifth, Jacob Price, topped Republican-backed Aaron Carr in the Cloyd District with 52.6% of the vote.
Incumbent Penny Golden took just 36% of the vote in her race against challenger Paine. Paine had sued Golden during the campaign, accusing her of saying Paine was a convicted felon while Paine asserted she only had a misdemeanor conviction 20 years ago. In a hearing in late October, a judge dismissed the suit, saying the claims didn’t meet the threshold for defamation for a candidate for office.
In Bedford County, which had four school board seats up for election, conservative candidates ran away with the night.
Conservatives Johnathan Knight and Dora Purvis each won about 98% of the vote in their uncontested races for Districts 1 and 5, respectively.
In District 6, Kurt Hubach defeated incumbent Susan Kirby with 61% of the vote. Kirby had run unopposed in 2015 and 2019.
Parental rights candidate Chris Daniels took 94% of the vote in District 7, where he had endorsements from the Bedford County GOP and the far-right Moms for Liberty. Jennifer Horne had thrown her hat in the ring as a last-minute write-in candidate, but just 128 voters out of the 2,256 who cast ballots in the district submitted a write-in choice.