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ANALYSIS: The Fools, Fabulists and Toxic Behavior in Spotsylvania
August 23, 2023
ANALYSIS: The Fools, Fabulists and Toxic Behavior in Spotsylvania
by Martin Davis
FOUNDER AND EDITOR
I have spilt no small amount of ink on the destruction the Spotsylvania County School Board -- charged with nurturing and growing education -- has accomplished.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Nextdoor are thick with posts entangled in the weeds of that battle. Citizens need to hold those responsible for the collapse of student achievement in Spotsylvania County accountable.
Yet social media’s focus on minutiae and score-settling - the hinge on which social media swings - obscures the bigger and darker picture. The chaos unleashed by the far-right extremists who now firmly control the school board is not simply destroying the system’s credibility (see School Digger’s analysis of Spotsylvania Schools, which dropped 19 slots between 2021 and 2022). It’s threatening to drag the entire county back to the primordial Confederate ooze it had begun to pull itself out of over the past 20 years.
Spotsylvania’s trauma is horrible; not unique - Enter the fools
To see the bigger picture, it is necessary to place Spotsylvania in the larger national political context.
Extremism has surged in the U.S. overall over the past seven years. An analysis of this violence by the Washington Post in April 2021 makes clear that the far-right is the principal driver of this trend.
Domestic terrorism incidents have soared to new highs in the United States, driven chiefly by white-supremacist, anti-Muslim and anti-government extremists on the far right, according to a Washington Post analysis of data compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
There is also a pattern to this behavior. In smaller, rural communities like Shasta County in California and Whidbey Island in Washington State, extremists enamored of unrestrained gun rights, anti-government conspiracy theories, and a deep hatred of Muslims, Jews, minorities, and immigrants begin as outliers. They are seen as the crazies who bang the tables at local government meetings and are easily dismissed as fools.
However, through persistence they manage to turn the tables and take control of the very systems they hate. Once that power has been obtained, the government agency begins to behave more like fiefdoms of tyrannical rule.
Here in Spotsylvania, it started with Kirk Twigg. He sat mostly silent for several years after winning a seat on the school board, biding his time and aligning other disgruntled extremists around him.
Inarticulate and bumbling, Twigg played the role of the fool. Made the butt of jokes, ridiculed, and dismissed, voters in Spotsylvania failed to see the coming danger.
Lisa Phelps was the second fool. Easy to dismiss even, with puzzling pleadings about cats’ suffering and a demonstrable lack of understanding of even basic policy. Phelps’ promotion as chair did nothing to erase the perception that she is clueless.
Board meetings do not follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and on the few occasions she does speak to any members of the press, head-scratching quotes tumble out.
Consider this quote that appeared yesterday in a Virginia Mercury story by JW Caterine. Asked if she worried Spotsylvania’s adopting the governor’s new anti-LGBTQ policies ran afoul of federal Title IX law, Phelps offered this non sequitur:
The bottom line, this vote is about parents’ rights…. I have children, I birth them, and that’s how simple I’m going to keep it.
April Gillespie and Rabhi Abuismail rounded out the stage of stooges.
With the school board in hand, Twigg was named board chair, and during his one-year tenure his ongoing antics gave people hope the system could survive a brief period of chaos.
Twigg was incapable of running a meeting, with no command of basic facts about the system he oversaw. Twigg refused the assistance of the more-reasonable conservatives who tried to guide him. Ultimately, his arrogance and carelessness led to his facing felony charges for illegally raising the salary of a staff member without first getting board approval.
Changing the narrative - enter the fabulists
Bumbling though Twigg’s leadership was, he did manage to get his man put into the superintendent’s chair.
Mark Taylor - a close, long-time personal friend of Twigg - brought no educational experience, no understanding of how schools work, and has shown no real public interest that his knowledge is improving.
What he did have were the ideological credentials, and a willingness to create alternative factsfrom his misreading of educational material to achieve a greater goal. What that goal is remains unclear.
I have argued that it could be tied to establishing a school dictated by Christian Nationalist ideals. More recently, there have been moves suggesting he aims to pave the way for Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin to bring charter schools to Spotsylvania. Taylor and the majority board who hired him refuse to say, however, what they are really up to.
What Taylor does do is play the parents right card to perfection - demanding the district respect the parent provided that parent aligns with Taylor’s own narrow Christian views; ignoring the rights of parents who want their children to have a truly balanced, broad liberal education that will prepare them for life well beyond Spotsylvania County.
Like all fabulists, Taylor and the cronies he has surrounded himself with (Jon Russell, Tara Mergener, and countless new faces in Central Office) refuse to be transparent.
Taylor’s automated email response, for example, is infamous for its dismissive tone. He makes clear that emails to him most likely will never reach him, and may not even receive a response. Further, he insults sitting School Board members by making them take an alternate route to speaking with him:
…you may not receive an individualized response in addition to this acknowledgment, but please know that your email is important to us.
* Special Note to Spotsylvania County School Board Members: Please refer to policy BGR and directly relate your request to Board Chairwoman, Lisa Phelps.
In the face of a steady stream of mistruths, half-truths, and outright lies, the lack of transparency allows the district to totally control the message. By refusing to address errors in fact coming out of the Taylor administration means those criticism have all the effect of a rubber ball hitting a cement wall.
They kick right back to the sender, without denting the keep surrounding Taylor.
Acting carelessly - enter the insults and toxic behavior
In the communities referenced above where extremists managed to gain control, the situation moved beyond untruths and shutting out those who don’t fall in line with their anti-democratic mindset to toxic behavior.
And in recent weeks, a particularly troubling example such behavior has come to light.
At the center of the controversy is new Riverbend High School principal Xavier Downs. Two weeks ago, he sent a note to Riverbend’s teaching staff - how many isn’t known - to announce a tragic event involving a student.
The same night that Downs sent his email to staff, School Board member Nicole Cole sent an email to his expressing concern with the content of that email.
Downs’ message, Cole began:
references a ‘tragic event’ that happened to an RHS student. I have checked my email and there is no message from Mr. (Superintendent Mark) Taylor to Board members to apprise us of anything regarding this event, the student or the course of action. Please understand that the community does reach out to Board members when they have questions. Typically, principals communicate to the Superintendent who communicates to the Board when there are ‘events’ especially tragic ones that impact stakeholders in our school division. This helps us to support you when the community reaches out to us with questions.”
Roughly an hour-and-a-half later, Downs responded this way:
The email is not cryptic it simply explains to our staff that we will have a grievance crisis team on campus.
The clarification is fair and within the bounds of professional behavior. But by the end of the letter, his language has turned toxic.
At this point it’s obvious that I’ve become a target for you….
Additionally, please feel free to send me a copy of your professional counseling license, and/or crisis management credentials, should you be so inclined. Otherwise, please stay in your lane.
By many standards of professional behavior, Downs’ personal insults and passive-aggressive language would be improper. They’re especially troubling from a professional educator whose own credentials, as Uphaus reported, raise serious concerns.
His behavior isn’t the end of the story, however.
Like Phelps and Twigg, who in board meetings have abused Robert’s Rules of Order for their benefit when it’s in their favor, and conveniently ignored them when they don’t (See the meeting from August 14, for example), Downs is also playing fast and loose with policy.
In his letter to Cole, before launching into personal insults, he called into question her interpretation of policy regarding how to handle a crisis situation:
the process we are using is the standard national crisis response guidelines which I’m open to share with you.
He gave the same response to the FXBG Advance in a phone call the following the exchange between Downs and Cole.
Asked to provide the Advance with a link or reference to those national crisis response guidelines, Downs told the Advance to “Google it.”
A Google search turned up no definitive answer, so the Advance followed up with Downs via text message and asked for a “direct link to the protocols” that he referenced. He referred us to “Tara Merger [sic].”
The Advance followed Downs’ advice and sent the following email to Mergener:
Tara - I spoke with Xavier Downs on Thursday about [the tragedy involving] a student at Riverbend High School recently. My question was why parents of RHS students were not notified that there had been a tragic incident (Name of family and/or student is NOT necessary) ….
I was informed that the county now follows the "National Crisis Response Protocols" and not previous standards. When I asked for the link I was told to "Google it." A google search has turned up a couple of possible candidates for documents Downs could have been referring to, but no definitive answer.
Please provide me with a link or full citation to this response plan by noon Tuesday, August 15.
Also, please clarify why this national plan would supercede any school plan that has been adopted, which is required by the policy manual EB:
"Each school submits a copy of its school safety audit to the superintendent or designee. The superintendent or designee collates and submits all such school safety audits, in the prescribed format and manner of submission, to the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety and shall make available upon request to the chief law-enforcement officer of the locality the results of such audits for the officer's review and recommendation....
"... The superintendent establishes a school safety audit committee to include, if available, representatives of parents, teachers, local law enforcement, emergency services agencies, local community services boards, and judicial and public safety personnel. The school safety audit committee reviews the completed school safety audits and submits any plans, as needed, for improving school safety to the superintendent for submission to the School Board. "
The response we received, after the requested deadline, was unsigned and simply said:
We received your inquiry following the tragedy involving a Riverbend student.
We are honoring the wishes of the parents. Support services are available to the school community.
The real harm comes in the morning
The litany of bad behavior and misdeeds by this school board leadership has the community calling for change in November.
What is not being examined, however, is why the voters of Spotsylvania County allowed things to get to this point in the first place.
From the moment that Twigg first found his way onto the Board, there was little ambiguity that this was someone whose first concern was a radical reshaping of the education system, not the nurturing and care of that system.
In the elections that followed, voters continued to ignore warning signs. So when the board finally did fall into Twigg’s hands almost two years ago, people had little reason to be shocked that he took the draconian steps that he took.
Waiting until the harsh reality of placing extremists in positions of power hits one squarely in the face to act is to wait too late.
Should anyone really be surprised at Downs’ behavior given the people who now control the hiring and firing?
As the residents of Spotsylvania have learned, once people are sworn in, there’s little that can be done to stop them, if they choose to abuse their powers. And once emboldened, their moves become more outlandish.
A simple election in November, should it turn the extremists out, is not going to undo all the damage that has been done to this system.
It will take time to set a course change and bring people back into the system who can again set it on solid ground and began to regain the respect that it had spent the previous decade working so hard to earn.
More important, it will require crafting a new vision. One that teaches people anew that public education is a public good, not a liability.
Teaching people that public education is about more than reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic.
That public education is about raising a properly informed citizenry that can engage productively in our democratic process.
In Shasta County, California, and in Whidbey Island, Washington, the extremists are on the verge of destroying the very democratic principles they claim to uphold. Spotsylvania is following quickly in that direction.
Such is the price of voter ignorance.
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-Martin Davis, Editor