F.C. School Board Chair Cites Threat, Calls for Civility in Race

Bronwen Rankin.  (Photo: News-Press)
Bronwen Rankin. (Photo: News-Press)

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Falls Church School Board, chair Justin Castillo made an appeal for civility in the heated discourse that has developed in the recent period. His appeal comes in in the wake of a report that another School Board candidate filed a petition against the School Board in the weeks prior to the upcoming Nov. 3 election.

Candidate Becky Smerdon, the chair of the School Board’s Special Education Advisory Committee has filed a petition against the School Board in the Arlington Circuit Court, and a ton of online and often angry comments have developed, mostly in defense of her action.

Castillo condemned “vituperative, angry and hostile” comments, nothing that he, himself, was told by a citizen he’d “be better off dead” after a candidate’s forum last week. “People are becoming fearful and security measures are being required,” he said. Monday night, at a meeting of the Special Education Advisory Committee, or SPEAC, a Falls Church police officer was on the scene as a precaution.

In that meeting, a motion and a second by a board member to call for a vote seeking the resignation of Smerdon was disallowed by Smerdon.
Bronwen Rankin, who made a statement at that meeting supporting the call for Smerdon’s resignation, appeared before the School Board Tuesday night to report that “since my statement yesterday, I have received an unsolicited email from a close supporter of the SPEAC chair to gain information about me to discredit my comments. I have no professional affiliation with the schools as a psychologist, and I make my statements as a parent of a special needs child. Today the chair named me on the Falls Church News-Press comments to discredit my public statement. I believe that a committee chair should listen to feedback. I have the right to make public comment without punishment from the chair and her associates,” she told the School Board.

She also reiterated that Smerdon “refused a seconded motion for a vote on her resignation” Monday, saying, “Five committee members cited difficulties in the leadership and a climate of meetings making it hard to move forward as a productive group.”

Smerdon ruled as “out of order” at the SPEAC meeting Monday a motion and second to call for her resignation.

According to a News-Press source, four parent members (parents of special needs students) of the SPEAC called for a vote on the motion and second, but Smerdon did not allow it. One citizen volunteer member then called for the committee to be dissolved because the atmosphere had become so bad.

“A vote violates our committee by-laws and Robert’s Rules,” Smerdon responded in a post on the News-Press website. “We just had chair training by the School Board attorney and I followed our directives to do things according to procedures. I did, however, amend the agenda to allow members to air their concerns and I listened carefully and responded respectfully. this is the first meeting I chaired of the SPEAC. It seems odd to ask for my resignation before even giving me a chance to lead the committee…Our bylaws clearly state that the chair and vice or co-chair serve for a year. I explained this to the committee and that I would not resign. I allowed discussion of their concerns. But I did not allow the meeting to be co-opted to violate both our bylaws and Robert’s Rules which govern our meetings. Having said all of this, I ran the meeting as planned,” she wrote.

In the statement by Rankin then, being a parent of a special needs student, that was presented at the beginning of the meeting, she said that “During the past year the current chair and co-chair of SPEAC disrespected staff on SPEAC through negative messages, rude silencing, and protracted, bullying public comment.”

Describing herself as a “clinical psychologist specializing in testing for learning disabilities who has served on the board of an independent school for five years and as a former SPEAC member,” she added, “Negativity and intimidation does not create constructive, collaborative change in our schools. By taking legal action against the board they serve, they have a conflict of interest. Their public actions serve their own agendas and are not in line with duties and appropriate boundaries of committee members.”

Five of the seven parent members of the committee spoke about the lack of collaboration in the leadership, lack of civility in the meetings, a feeling that if they speak up in meetings they will be attacked, and feeling belittled by the leadership when opinions are expressed. They said that due to the poor leadership, the committee cannot move forward.

(The News-Press reached out to Smerdon Wednesday to offer her an opportunity to respond to Rankin’s charges. While she had been in contact with us, as of the print deadline, she failed to do so).

Last week, a much anticipated face off between the record number of candidates seeking election to three Falls Church School Board seats did not yield marked differences among them, and this combined with a smaller-than-expected turnout means that voters come Nov. 3 will have less clarity than they might have hoped for as the time draws nearer when they must chose three among eight candidates on the ballot.

The format of the forum – epic for having so many candidates, a number never before seen running for the School Board since election of School Boards became law in Virginia in 1994 – co-hosted by the Falls Church League of Women Voters and the Village Preservation and Improvement Society, did not challenge the candidates to take contrary positions on issues. In addition to opening and closing statements, the candidates were all asked different questions through five rounds of questions, thus never once did two or more of them have to opine on the same issues.

As a result, none of the remarks from the candidates, all articulate and intelligent and pro-schools, raised eyebrows or fueled arguments. The closest thing to controversy, in fact, came when candidate Alison Kutchma got asked whether she would allow teachers to carry concealed weapons on school grounds. She hesitated, then said her first reaction was to say no, but then said she would be open to both sides on the issue.

Another unscripted response came when incumbent School Board chair Castillo was asked how problems with drugs and alcohol among students should be dealt with. He said, with considerable candor, “This is a difficult issue because there has been a sea change in our culture” in attitudes on these matters, noting debates he’s had in his own home on the legalization of marijuana.

Teachers in the audience told the News-Press following the debate that, indeed, there are some morale issues with teachers in the school system resulting from pressures from the administration, but during the forum these were only vaguely touched on without specifics by some of the candidates.

The longest tenured member of the School Board, Kieran Sharpe (17 years and counting), had one of the more refreshing statements in his opening remarks, acknowledging that there has been a shift away from a reliance on a strong administration and outside consultants toward a push “for greater citizen control” in the decisions of the board. Castillo and Sharpe are the two incumbents seeking re-election in November.

Mark Kaye, Jacob Radcliff, Phil Reitinger, Erin Gill and Smerdon joined Kutchma as the roster of six challengers seeking election to the board for the first time. Their issues ranged from transparency in the dealings of the board (with worries expressed by some about how transparent the private-public educational partnership to develop the 34 acres of the Upper West End land will be (including its components for a new or expanded high school and expanded middle school), to concerns for the educational-residential-commercial mix that will result for that land, and the success of the school system in addressing the issues facing the bulk of students who are neither exceptionally gifted or with special needs.