The Arlington branch of the NAACP has come out swinging against the Arlington County Democratic Committee’s School Board caucus process, but stopped just short of calling for its outright elimination.
In a three-page letter to new Democratic chair Steve Baker, the civil-rights organization laid out a litany of complaints about the process, which has come to serve as a de-facto substitute for the general election.
“Inserting partisan lines into the process behind the scenes does not serve democratic purposes and does not serve our schools,” the NAACP’s executive committee said in the three-page letter, dated and publicly released Jan. 26.
“The partisan caucus has become a shadow election,” NAACP officials said. “The complex challenges that our school systems face today demand the fullest extent of community participation in recruiting and electing leaders.”
But while the organization said it “strongly recommends” ending the caucus process, it left the door open to having Democrats “thoughtfully and strategically reform the process.”
Democrats plan to discuss the matter, and decide whether to hold a 2022 caucus, at their Feb. 2 meeting, Baker said in a Jan. 27 e-mail.
For several decades, Democrats have used a springtime caucus to select endorsees for School Board. And with the exception of Republican Dave Foster, who served from 2000 to 2008, Democrats have held a monopoly on School Board seats during that period.
But it also has engendered criticism, largely that the low turnout (compared to the general election) allows the process to be manipulated in support of candidates who might be amenable to Democratic leadership or single-interest groups. As the NAACP letter pointed out, participation in the 2021 caucus (which saw Mary Kadera defeat Miranda Turner) was highest in upper-end parts of the county, which tended to be the least diverse.
Holding a partisan caucus also means most federal-government employees cannot run for the endorsement, as doing so would violate Hatch Act rules. That became a major issue in the 2021 party caucus.
Under state law, School Board elections are officially nonpartisan, but there is nothing in the law to prohibit political parties from endorsing candidates, although it does exclude them from using the state-run primary election as the method of doing so.
Those who run in the Democratic caucus pledge up front not to seek a space on the general-election ballot if they lose; while unlikely to be legally enforceable, it is a custom that has never been tested by candidates who fall short in a caucus vote.
In 2021, it seemed briefly possible that no candidate would step forward to run in the Democratic caucus, but then Kadera and Turner materialized. Both attempted to portray themselves as outsiders-cum-reformers, but Kadera quickly was embraced by the Democratic establishment as its preferred choice against Turner, who was asking pointed questions about COVID-related school closures and had the backing of some back-to-classrooms proponents.
Kadera won the caucus and had little trouble defeating Major Mike Webb in the general election.
While Democrats have as yet not come up empty in finding contenders to run for School Board, the party is having a hard time keeping incumbents in place. In just the past two years, three board members (Nancy Van Doren, Tannia Talento and Monique O’Grady) left after relatively short tenures of six, four and four years. Recently, incumbent Barbara Kanninen announced she would not seek a third four-year term for the lone seat on the November 2022 ballot, leaving the endorsement process wide open.
The NAACP’s salvo could prove a test of Baker, who in January was elected to serve as Democratic chair. He succeeded Jill Caiazzo, who had served two two-year terms.