Monday evening’s meeting of the Spotsylvania County School Board ended after 13 minutes with no business conducted when the audience became unruly.
Chairwoman Dawn Shelley told the crowd multiple times that they were out of order. Members of the audience yelled back, “You’re out of order.”
Shelley asked a deputy to escort one audience member out before calling the second of two 5-minute recesses, from which the board never returned.
The meeting was a special called meeting with the stated purpose of discussing “State Health Commissioner’s Order Issued July 27, 2021,” according to the published agenda. On July 27, the Virginia Department of Health released guidance recommending that K–12 school divisions follow the CDC’s guidance and implement universal mask mandates.
On Aug. 9, the Spotsylvania School Board amended its mask policy to require all students, staff and visitors to wear face coverings while on school property. Spotsylvania had previously allowed any student or parent to opt out of masking.
On Aug. 12, State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver issued a public health order requiring that all students, teachers, staff and visitors in grades K–12 age 2 and older wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
The order reinforced current state law, which says that schools must provide in-person instruction each day of the academic schedule this year and must follow the CDC’s recommended COVID-19 mitigation procedures “to the maximum extent practicable.”
The board never got to a discussion of the health commissioner’s order. The meeting began falling apart when Livingston District representative Kirk Twigg attempted to amend the agenda to add time for public comments.
Comments were not part of the published agenda, which according to state law must be made available to the public at least three working days prior to a public meeting.
At an emergency special meeting held Aug. 11, the board did vote to amend the agenda and allow public comments before it voted to remove a religious exemption to the mask ordinance.
After Twigg made his motion Monday night, Shelley and Battlefield District representative Baron Braswell said they heard from constituents after the last meeting.
“I spoke to a number of people over the last week and they asked about public comments, and I said there would not be public comments,” Shelley said. “So because it’s not on the agenda, I do not think public comments would be appropriate, because it was not advertised.
“There are a number of people here, but there are other people who asked about public comments and when they were told there would not be any, they did not attend the meeting.”
Braswell offered a substitute motion that would limit the speaking time of each citizen to 3 minutes, down from the usual time.
Twigg did not accept this substitute motion and accused Braswell of wanting to cut the time short “because things are not playing your way.”
“Mr. Braswell, now is not the time to get our violins out and start playing for you and Ms. Shelley,” he said. “We have an agenda here with one item on it. I hardly think we’re gonna get past your bedtime, Mr. Braswell.”
Shelley asked Twigg to temper his remarks, and when Courtland representative Rabih Abuismail spoke up to support Twigg’s motion, Shelley told him he was “out of order” and the crowd started shouting at her.
Shelley told the crowd she would have the deputy begin escorting people out of the meeting and a woman yelled back, “We’re not going anywhere. Do you hear us?”
The board recessed for five minutes and returned to vote on Twigg’s motion, which failed 3–3. Lee Hill District representative Lisa Phelps voted with Abuismail and Twigg. Braswell, Shelley and Salem District representative Lorita Daniels opposed the motion. Berkeley District representative Erin Grampp was not at the meeting.
When people in the crowd stood up and began yelling, Shelley called another recess and, shortly afterward, the online video of the meeting said the meeting was adjourned.
Division spokesperson Rene Daniels said Tuesday, “The meeting ended with no formal adjournment made by the School Board due to the significant disruption at the meeting.”
Spotsylvania School Board meetings have increased in tension in recent months and the tension has spilled into the campaigns of the three members who are running for reelection. Grampp recently canceled a planned fundraiser after reporting trespassing on her property and a series of threatening phone calls.
The board has discussed making changes to its public comments policy in an attempt to ensure decorum, but Braswell—who has been the target of many comments—did not support making any changes.