Can an all-white school board adequately represent its minority constituents? That’s the question Louisa County voters are being asked to answer in a Nov. 8 special election.
The school board, which governs eight schools with about 30% non-white students, has been all white since 2014. When two Black residents applied to fill a temporary open seat in February, the board instead selected Lloyd Runnett, a white candidate with ties to the existing school board.
Now, both candidates, Runnett and Dave Rogers, want a place on the seven-person body. Rogers is Black and said it’s time to change the “good old boy” board.
“I’m here to be the voice for people that don’t have a voice,” said Rogers, whose priority is hiring more diverse teachers and staff.
Rogers’ campaign has attracted support from Louisa residents including Deborah Coles, who works for the school transportation department and is the president of the Louisa chapter of the NAACP. Her own children attended Louisa public schools.
“When our children of color only see one group represented in those roles, we do them an injustice as we spend their formative years telling them they can be or can do anything they set their minds to,” Coles wrote to Charlottesville Tomorrow in her personal capacity. “It’s almost hypocritical on our part as we ourselves accept the status quo, and we don’t step up to effect change. We need to work to bring about the change we tell our children they can be.”
The stage for the upcoming special election was set in February when long-time Louisa County School Board member Sherman Shifflett died three months after being reelected to represent the Mineral district for a four-year term. Seven people applied for appointment to the seat; one withdrew their name from consideration before a decision was reached.
One of two Black applicants, Rogers was inspired to submit his name for consideration when he learned the Louisa school board has had no minority representation since the departure of former school board member Allen Jennings in 2014. Louisa County Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes is currently the only Black elected official in the county.
“That’s our civic duty,” Rogers said of his decision to apply.
State law allows boards to appoint a temporary member to vacated spaces before holding a special election.
Neither Rogers, a Brooklyn, New York native who grew up spending summers with his mother’s family in Louisa and relocated with his church insurance business to the county in 2009, nor the other Black applicant, Kimberly Fitchett-Bazemore, an education professor, were selected after Shifflett’s death.
Rogers said he’d been warned that Runnett was a shoo-in because of his close relationship to Shifflett. He said he received one brief call from the school board chair Greg Strickland during the application process. There was no community input. At a public meeting on March 22, covered by the Engage Louisa newsletter, the school board released the other applicants’ names for the first time and announced Runnett’s appointment.
My attitude is, when you’ve got a bunch of people that have been there for years, they tend to lose touch with their constituents and it becomes more like a social club. And that’s my opinion of the school board.Dave Rogers, candidate for Louisa County School Board
Runnett is a Louisa County native, retired career EMT and executive director of the Louisa County Resource Center, which provides food and essentials to county residents who have low incomes. He said Shifflett was a mentor to him since he was a teen and coached him on Louisa athletic teams.
“He just had great values and great character, and I try to emulate them. And the things that I learned from Sherman were compassion and empathy and those types of things for students,” said Runnett. “For the last few years, as Sherman progressed in age, he had been working with me as much as you can to prepare me to do this.”
Runnett said his priorities are helping all students catch up after the pandemic and improving school safety, something he says his career in public safety equipped him to do.
At the March public school board meeting, Strickland and other board members said they believed Runnett best fulfilled Shifflett’s “mission and vision,” according to a recording. Rogers says he heard a different message.
“They want the same good old boy. They want the same white person,” said Rogers, noting that several of the members have been on the board for multiple terms. ”My attitude is, when you’ve got a bunch of people that have been there for years, they tend to lose touch with their constituents and it becomes more like a social club. And that’s my opinion of the school board.”
Strickland disputed that assessment.
“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but had he done his research, he would have known that Mr. Allen Jennings was someone we placed on the board for a vacancy,” he said. Jennings went on to be elected to the seat in 2010 and served until 2014. Strickland said the Louisa school administration is racially diverse and that the district values the diversity of its students and staff.
Runnett said being white does not limit his ability to represent minority constituents. He said his track record building relationships with minority families in Louisa supports that claim, as do lessons instilled in him by his grandmother, a lifelong educator who worked with Indigenous people in northern Ontario, Canada in the early 1900s.
“She provided the reading, the writing, the basic things to those people, and they were able to achieve because of that,” Runnett said. “And so she spoke to that, to all of us, through her lifetime about education being just such a great equalizer. And so that’s why I’m so passionate about it. [The importance of education] was instilled in me very, very early on.”
He said his grandmother did not talk about the history of that time, in which the Canadian government forced Indigenous children into boarding schools in an effort to assimilate them. The Pope recently apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the violence the system caused.
Runnett has broad support from the community.
“I worked with him several different times with the Louisa Resource Council, distributing food to lower income people. He would give you the shirt off of his back,” said Runnett supporter Erika Rogers. “The qualifications should determine whether they win a spot or not.”
Erika Rogers, who is white, relocated with her family to Louisa in 2021 from out of state. Several of her 10 children attend Louisa public schools, and while she supports racial and socioeconomic diversity, she believes LGBTQ issues “need to stay outside the school system.” She believes Runnett is the right person for the job.
While school boards are not intended to be political bodies, in the current political climate, boards can become politicized. Hot button political issues including critical race theory and LGBTQ rights have thrust school boards across the nation into the spotlight, though neither Rogers nor Runnett have made them part of their platforms.
Rogers said he wants an accurate history of race in this country taught in schools. Neither candidates had specific comments on LGBTQ issues, just that they want all children to feel safe and learn.
Over 60% of Louisa County voters went for Donald Trump in the 2020 election and the county overwhelmingly supported Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2021. Youngkin’s administration issued new guidance Friday that would roll back protections for transgender students. That guidance is subject to a 30-day comment period before it takes effect and will likely be challenged in court.
“At some point, even in a nonpartisan election, people tend to know where the candidate stands on issues that are partisan in nature. That’s a fact of life in the current system,” said Kirk Schroder, a past president of the Virginia Board of Education, the body that advises the Virginia Department of Education on policy. Schroder, an attorney with a Ph.D. in education, said the current divisive climate makes diverse representation on school boards even more important.
“We live in a diverse community, and so having perspectives that represent [various] views and that input is important to the learning process,” Schroder said.
Louisa’s Mineral district, where the race is taking place, is majority white and conservative. Rogers said he knows that political make-up may pose challenges to his candidacy, but he said he’s been heartened by responses to his door-knocking.
“I’ve run into white people, and some of these white people are Republican. And they say to me, ‘I’m glad you’re doing it. It’s about time that Louisa has a change,’” he said. “That just built me up and gave me more encouragement.”
Ultimately, Schroder said, Louisa’s Mineral District voters will decide who represents them on the school board, and race is just one of the issues they care about.
“There are reasons why people get elected and they don’t get elected. Some get elected because of their qualifications, their views, or [voters] just don’t like the other candidate,” said Schroder.
Rogers said he’s at peace with his decision to run regardless of the outcome.
“I’m putting up a great showing because, like I said, it’s not about me. It’s about all the people. And they have to see that,” he said. “They have to know that you just don’t sit back and do nothing.”
The Louisa School Board special election takes place Nov. 8. Voters in the Mineral district can cast an in-person ballot that day at Louisa County Middle School. Early voting starts Friday, Sept. 23 at the registrar’s office at 1 Woolfolk Ave., Louisa, Va. 23093.