Virginia AG Examining Allegations of Election Interference by Fairfax School Board Member

📷: Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares

Asra Q. Nomani and Heather Zwicker | Fairfax County Times

In response to citizen concerns, the Fairfax County Times has learned, the office of Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares is examining allegations of election interference by Fairfax County school board member Stella Pekarsky against her political rival, school district teacher Julie Perry, in their race for a Virginia Senate seat.

The potentially illegal sequence of events was triggered by an email sent just after midnight on  May 7, by a local Democratic activist, Robert Rigby, to the Centreville High School principal, Chad Lehman. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Miyares’ office declined to comment.

In the email, sent at 12:04 a.m., Rigby, a former Fairfax County Public Schools teacher, current substitute, and activist working closely with the Fairfax County Democratic Party through an organization representing lesbian, gay, and transgender students and staff, said he had filed a report with Child Protective Services against Perry for a social media message she had posted the day before on Twitter, the platform now known as X.

Rigby alleged in the complaint that Perry had divulged confidential information about a student in the social media post. In the post, Perry cited an article by the National Institutes of Health in a general discussion about autism and gender dysphoria.

Had the complaint been valid, Perry could have lost her teaching license. A document shared by Perry’s attorney reveals that a staff officer for Child Protective Services immediately dismissed the complaint, noting, “We are not assigning this referral.” 

Undeterred, another local political operative and Pekarsky ally, Vanessa Hall, sent an email to Lehman on May 11, at 3:14 p.m., and four other employees and administrators at Fairfax County Public Schools – Angela Florio, Mike Parker, Alexis Wenzel, and Sarah Lutes – with the subject line, “Violation of Social Media Policies by a Teacher.” 

According to a document obtained by the Fairfax County Times, Hall had sent a letter earlier this year to residents soliciting funds for the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, asking for “financial support now” and “help NOW,” seeking monthly donations “as we enter the critical 2023 cycle in Fairfax County.”

In the Jan. 13 letter, on the letterhead stationery of “Fairfax Democrats,” Hall wrote, “With your gift today, you will not only help to support our school board but also help the joint effort toward defending all our Democratic candidates for Fairfax County and the General Assembly.” 

At the bottom, the letter noted: “Paid for by the Fairfax County Democratic Committee.” 

Describing herself as a “scout leader and Sunday School teacher,” Hall invoked “attacks on our schools, teachers, students, parents, and elected officials” in her plea for donations. She noted she was co-founder of an organization, “4 Public Education,” which is registered with the Virginia Secretary of State as a 501(c)(4) organization, allowed to do more political work than a typical 501(c)(3) nonprofit group.

Not long after that fundraising letter by Hall, Perry, a popular school teacher at Centreville High School, announced she was running for the Virginia Senate seat, competing against school board member Pekarsky. 

Fast forward to May, and in her email to administrators, Hall alleged a “horrific violation” of social media policies and student privacy policy by Perry. Hall didn’t mention her political work on behalf of the Fairfax County Democratic Party and Perry’s opponent, Pekarsky. She alleged that Perry wrote her tweet and was “using her students for her political gain.”

In the tweet, published days earlier on May 6, Perry expressed concern about a student with autism who told her during a planning period that he is “struggling with identifying with his birth gender.” She raised concerns about activists who raise questions about the sensitive issue of gender and sexuality issues with students with learning disabilities. Perry deleted the tweet soon after. 

In response to similar concerns, Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued model policies recently, directing school districts to discuss gender and sexuality issues of students with parents and guardians. Fairfax County Public Schools and board member Pekarsky have taken a position that the school district can keep secrets from parents and guardians. 

Less than one hour after Hall’s email, Fairfax County Assistant Superintendent Penny Gros scheduled a meeting from 4 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. with Pekarsky. In documents released in response to a public records request by a local journalist, Luke Rosiak, Gros wrote: “Subject: Phone Call: Stella (re: Julie Perry).” 

That night, at 9:33 p.m., Lehman, the principal, wrote to Hall with details about a personnel matter, saying: “Her posts are certainly not representative of CVHS, nor do they in any way speak for me or our administrative team. While | am not able to share any details, please know that | am addressing this issue and taking the actions that | am able to take.”

On May 15, at 11:50 a.m., Lehman asked for a meeting with Perry about the “attached Tweet.” He then issued her a reprimand. 

D. Hayden Fisher, Perry’s lawyer, raised ethical and legal concerns about Pekarsky’s participation in the proceedings involving Perry. He said, “Using the governmental power and influence she wields as an elected School Board member to boost, if not outright organize, an effort to smear her political opponent, who also happens to be a teacher in the same Fairfax County Public School system she oversees, with a false CPS complaint is not only an outrageous abuse of power but also clearly calculated to bully other teachers and staff to support her campaign. It is hard to imagine a more unlawful and malicious way to interfere in an election.”

It’s unusual for a school board member to be involved in personnel matters at that level. The Fairfax County Public Schools Governance Manual states that administrative issues should be delegated to the superintendent and that board members “should refrain from using the board position for personal or partisan gain.”

In a Sept. 20 tweet, Rigby mentioned Rosiak’s query and said he “did what was required of me by Virginia law.” In a statement on her Senate candidate account, Pekarsky admitted that Rigby’s report to Child Protective Services was “inappropriate and a misuse of the CPS system.” She claimed she recused herself from Perry’s case or “anything to do with any internal school system process involving her.”  

In the end, Perry told the Fairfax County Times that she was disappointed to learn that her opponent was directly involved in her personnel issue. Still, she’s heartened that the malicious report and emails against her have come to light.

“I would never wish this upon my worst enemy,” said Perry. “However, I will continue to focus my campaign on what matters the most to Fairfax County Residents: restoring excellence and meritocracy in our schools, parental rights, lowering taxes, and public safety.”

This article was first published at FairfaxTimes.com on September 29, 2023.

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2024 U.S. Senate & Congressional Primary

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