A second attempt to recall a Fairfax County School Board member has ground to a halt.
Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen announced in a statement that the Fairfax County Circuit Court issued an order today (Wednesday) dismissing a petition seeking her removal from office.
The petition of more than 8,000 signatures was filed in December by the Open FCPS Coalition, which launched recall campaigns against Cohen and two other school board members in protest of pandemic-related school closures.
According to the court order, the petition was “dismissed with prejudice,” meaning it can’t be refiled, after Goochland County Commonwealth’s Attorney D. Michael Caudill, who was appointed as a special prosecutor in the case, determined that it “is not based on facts sufficient to show probable cause for removal.”
Cohen called the court’s dismissal of the petition “long overdue,” arguing that it shouldn’t have been filed at all.
“Elected officials cannot be recalled because of differences of opinion,” Cohen said. “We have elections to decide who should represent us on school boards. There was never any legal basis for this recall petition. It was all politics driven by massive dark money contributions and even paid signature gathering.”
Self-described as a “bipartisan, grassroots, volunteer group of concerned parents and citizens,” Open FCPS Coalition formed in the summer of 2020 after Fairfax County Public Schools decided to begin the upcoming academic year with virtual classes due to COVID-19 health concerns.
The group announced in October 2020 that it had started campaigns to recall Cohen, Dranesville District school board member Elaine Tholen, and at-large member Abrar Omeish, arguing that they had violated their duties by not providing in-person learning.
Since the beginning of 2021, Open FCPS Coalition has received $77,500 in donations from the center-right advocacy group N2 America, along with $15,000 from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder, according to the Virginia Public Access Project’s donor records.
Expenditures include $25,000 to a consulting firm for signature collection services.
A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge dismissed the recall petition against Tholen on Aug. 20 after the special prosecutor assigned in that case — Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley — also said it lacked sufficient basis to move forward.
Despite the dismissals, the Open FCPS Coalition sees the recall campaigns as a success for acquiring the signatures needed to reach the circuit court and sending a statement that it anticipates will resonate with county voters.
All Fairfax County School Board members will be up for election in November 2023.
“Our movement was the 1st during the pandemic to shine a light on school boards which prompted similar movements around the country,” founder Dee Jackson said in a statement. “The school board may think they have won, but parents are now aware and will have a huge effect on school board elections in the future.”
A coalition that tried to recall school board member Elaine Tholen has filed another recall petition, this time for school board member Laura Jane Cohen.
Open FCPS Coalition says it’s seeking to remove the Springfield District representative over Fairfax County Public Schools’ pandemic response. Dee O’Neal Jackson, the group’s founder, said in a statement that the school board has failed students during the pandemic, especially those with learning disabilities.
“We hope the Court recognizes the concerns of these 8,000 residents and requires Ms. Cohen to explain why the concerns of these parents are invalid,” the group said in a statement, stating that it filed the 8,000-plus signatures collected for the petition on Friday (Dec. 10) at the Fairfax County Courthouse.
Open FCPS Coalition has gathered signatures against multiple school board members and previously noted concerns with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Open FCPS Coalition formed in fall 2020 to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and campaigned to recall Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, and Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish.
Cohen noted Tholen’s case was summarily dismissed after a special prosecutor said he had investigated the allegations in the petition and found that none of them could be substantiated.
“Allowing public officials to be recalled over policy disagreements unnecessarily politicizes their work,” Cohen said in a statement. “Virginia law is clear: differences of opinion over matters of policy are simply not grounds for removal from office.”
While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, it’s received funding contributions from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.
Open FCPS Coalition previously said only one school board member, Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority.
“The Board has worked hard to ensure the safety and health of our 180,000 students and tens of thousands of teachers and staff during the pandemic,” Cohen said in a statement. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to successfully return and keep students in our buildings this year and provide a much more normal school experience in spite of the pandemic related challenges all systems are facing.”