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Election of PWCS School Board Vice Chair Sparks Controversy

| January 5, 2018 | 0 Comments | News

The election of a school board vice chairman in Prince William County used to be fairly routine. However, with a deep division on the board, this year’s choice was contested.

Lillie G. Jesse, of the Occoquan District, was re-elected to a third term as Prince William School Board Vice Chairman for 2018 at the School Board’s annual organizational meeting, Wednesday, Jan. 3.

Jessie first joined the school board in 2012 and was reelected in November 2015. She is an educator with a career in Prince William County Schools that spanned 35 years. For 20 of those years, she was principal of Vaughan Elementary School in Woodbridge. She is also the senior-most Democrat on the board.

Jessie won by a five to three majority that fell along party lines; although school board candidates do not run as party representatives, all members have received endorsements from the two major parties.

Chairman Ryan Sawyers, Diane Raulston (Neabsco), Loree Williams (Woodbridge) and Justin Wilk (Potomac) as well as Ms. Jessie voted in favor. Republicans Gil Trenum (Brentsville), Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) and Willie Deutsch (Coles) opposed.

The vice chairman used to be limited to filling in for the chairman when he is absent from meetings or unable to attend functions and events. A policy change expanded the role so that the vice chair is now one is one of only three people who can approve agenda items; the others being the chairman and the superintendent.

Jessie demonstrated her capacity for the position over the past two years by filling in for Chairman Ryan Sawyers when he was absent from several meetings especially a string of absences in fall of 2017. However, it breaks with school board tradition to elect the same member year after year. Some school board members felt it would have been preferable to give someone else a chance, but the procedure to elect the school board member chosen dictated that the name he proposed would have to fail before another person was proposed.

The chairman gave the board a chance to vote on the procedure, as the board’s parliamentarian said another procedure would be acceptable. The board decided to use the traditional one person at a time method via a five to three majority along the same party lines.

Brentsville representative Gil Trenum, senior most member of the board, said he would not be voting for Jessie, not for personal reasons but for “educational” reasons. He said he had served as board vice chairman before and learned much from that role. He said he hoped someone else could gain that experience.

“In the past we had rotated that around, and I thought that was always a good practice,” said Trenum..“It was very educational for me.”

Willie Deutsch of the Coles District said he would have preferred an alternate method of electing a vice chair by which all names would be considered, but that motion had failed.

“I think it’s important to rotate the position. I was looking forward to the proposal that the parlimenantarian offered.I think there is a prudence in letting this be a decision of the board and opening it up to the whole board.”

Before the vote on Jessie, Deutsch put forth a substitute motion to consider Diane Raulston of the Neabsco District. Alyson Satterwhite of the Gainesville District seconded the motion.

Raulston graciously declined, and Sawyers said that the motion was out of order anyway since Jessie’s vote would have to fail before the option of a different member could be put forth. Unlike Jessie, Raulston does not have any seniority on the board or long-standing experience with Prince William County Public Schools, or experience as an educator.

Like Jessie, Raulston is a Democrat but had oftentimes broken with her party on important votes, such as accepting millions in additional funding from the Board of County Supervisors to fund the 13th high school and elementary schools on the eastern side of the county. In that way, perhaps she was a person both parties could endorse. Jessie had been more steadfast in voting with Sawyers, although there have been exceptions.

Loree Williams spoke enthusiastically about Ms. Jessie saying she would happily give up her turn for Jessie. “I do thoroughly enjoy working with her and will be honored to do so again.”

Jessie thanked the board for selecting her and said she would be happy to work with everyone, even those who did not vote for her.

“I had the opportunity to serve this school system since the early 70s.. Honestly, I’ve had a great time. I’ve been blessed…I’m honored to serve the community…I did not take it personally, you had your rationale for not electing me as chair, but I will work with every member of the board.”

Jessie also said she does not want the position for herself, but to serve the students. “It is absolutely about student learning”

In a phone interview, following the school board meeting, Deutsch said that the current system of having the chairman and vice chairman serve as a gatekeeper for the agenda has yielded restrictions.

“Fewer ideas are being brought forth,” he said. “Some things have repeatedly been denied.

One issue made public during the Jan. 3 meeting was Satterwhite’s request to add the minutes of a Jan. 4 2017 Special Meeting of the school board’s online archives in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act § 2.2-3700. According to Deutsch, Sawyers and Jessie refuse to add the item to the agenda.

Many board members believe the meeting was illegitimate and thus should not be recognized. In fact, they voted to strike the meeting last year at their Jan. 18 meeting.

The highly-controversial meeting was covered by several media outlets. Bristow Beat’s account of the Jan. 4 2017 special meeting can be found here.

© 2018, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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