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Effort to remove Virginia school board member over COVID policy to be decided by court

Fairfax County Board member Elaine Tholen faces a recall effort over her votes to suspend in-person learning for the school system during the COVID-19 pandemic

Updated: July 23, 2021 - 11:35pm

A Fairfax County school board member will need to plead her case in court for why she should not be removed from office after petitioners gathered the necessary number of signatures, a judge decided Friday.

Board member Elaine Tholen faces a recall effort over her votes to suspend in-person learning for the school system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The petitioners argue she was incompetent in the performance of her duties, which is one of the reasons for which an elected official can be removed from office. The petition claims she ignored medical experts, which led to adverse effects on the children’s education.

Virginia’s recall law is different from most states. In the commonwealth, the decision to remove an elected official from office rests in the judicial system, rather than with the electorate. If a petition receives the required number of signatures (10% of the total number of votes cast in the last election for that office), then a judge must decide to either dismiss the effort or hold a trial in court to determine whether the official will be removed.

On Friday, a judge ruled Tholen will need to appear in court. The petition signatures were gathered by a group called Open Fairfax County Public Schools. According to Open FCPS, the group gathered 5,000 signatures, which is about 1,500 more than required.

“This is a major step in the right direction,” Open FCPS Founder Dee O’Neal said in a statement. “The parents of Dranesville have made their voices clear: Elaine Tholen ignored her duties as a School Board member and our kids have suffered because of it. In-person learning must happen this fall, yet we still have no plan from the Board. We look forward to seeing Ms. Tholen in court once she returns from vacation.

O’Neal went on to accuse the board of placing party politics, geopolitical issues and social justice projects ahead of their main duties, which include the children losing learning opportunities during the shutdown of in-person education.

In a statement, Tholen told The Center Square she was elected by nearly 60% of the Dranesville District and voters knew she would stand up for their children’s interests and educational needs.

“That’s my job, and that’s what I do every single day,” Tholen said. “I look forward to continuing to earn my constituents’ trust and support as we prepare to welcome all students in person five days per week. It’s hard work, but there’s no greater calling than to provide a safe, challenging and fun learning environment for our students. My life’s work has been to take care of students and families. As a former classroom educator and now a school board member, I have always worked for my students’ well-being and to help them reach their utmost potential. I will continue to put our students’ best interests first.”

If the judge decides she will be removed from office, a special election will be held.

Open FCPS is also gathering petitions to recall other members of the board for their votes to shut down in person learning. The group intends to submit the required number of signatures for board member Laura Jane Cohen by Aug. 31.

Schools are required to go back to full in-person education five days per week in the upcoming school year.