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Culpeper school board picks Keene, Desilets; explains choices
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Culpeper school board picks Keene, Desilets; explains choices

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The Culpeper County School Board has a new chair: Marshall Keene.

The Stevensburg District representative was elected by acclamation Monday night, without a roll-call vote.

Cedar Mountain District member Betsy Smith nominated Keene, and East Fairfax District member Pat Baker seconded the motion. Catalpa District Barbee Brown nominated Baker as chair and then as vice chair, but Baker declined to serve.

Superintendent Tony Brads announced the board’s decision, handing Keene the chair’s gavel. The School Board elected Salem District member Anne Luckinbill as its vice chair.

Later, the board voted 4-2 to elect Deborah Desilets as its new Jefferson District representative, with members Luckinbill and Barbee Brown opposed. Desilets will hold the seat vacated Dec. 31 by former School Board Chair Michelle North, filling the unexpired one-year portion of North’s term. After she takes the oath of office in Culpeper County Circuit Court, Desilets’ first School Board meeting will be on Jan. 25.

In October, North announced she couldn’t finish her last year because of the politicization of Culpeper public-school issues, personality conflicts among School Board members, and health concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday evening, Keene thanked his colleagues for their confidence in choosing him to lead the policy-setting body. He acknowledged that he has been a lightning rod given his activities as chairman of the Culpeper County Republican Committee.

“I apologize to each of you for not abandoning my principles or my morals or my political affiliation,” Keene said, with obvious emotion. “I apologize to you for what you are going through personally and professionally because of my political affiliation, but I will not apologize for that. Those are my beliefs. It’s what I live by.

“I will always look in the mirror every morning, and know that I stand up for what I believe in. I do that with the School Board. I do that with everything that I do in life ... whatever that may be.”

He praised the board’s work last year, in a very difficult time. “We have done great things in 2020 despite COVID,” Keene said. “We are the gold standard in Virginia for how we handle COVID. We have an awesome staff. We have a superintendent that we do not give enough credit to.”

Before Keene spoke, board members shared their thoughts about his election.

Had there been a roll-call vote, Brown said she would have opposed Keene’s election.

“My concern with Mr. Keene’s chairmanship has nothing to do with his work ethic or dedication to his job,” she said. “... My concern is about what he has posted at various times on Facebook about teachers and teachers’ assignments. Some of his posts seemed to attack the School Board chair, previously Ms. North. Also ... he has too many irons in the fire, as my mother would say.”

Brown noted that Keene has a full-time job as a Culpeper County sheriff’s deputy; a part-time business, his driving school; is chair of the Republican party; a family man; and now chair of the School Board.

“Mr. Keene asked me to support his effort to become chair last year, and I told him the exact same thing,” she said. “He has too many commitments to be the chair of the School Board.”

But now that the board had spoken, Brown said, “I hope to see that my concerns are misplaced” and that Keene will lead its members as a team always acting in the best interests of the schools and community.

“Hopefully, under his leadership, we will see a more inclusive board that wants to hear other opinions than seeing if they have the four votes needed for whatever the four want,” she said.

Brown wished Keene “great success.”

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Luckinbill said that until recent weeks, in her 14 years on the School Board, she had never received public comments about who should or should not lead it

She said she appreciated residents’ concerns, but the decision about who should chair the board is up to its members alone. “We have insights about the six, soon to be seven, of us that the general public does not have,” Luckinbill said.

Despite Keene’s political activism, “I have never seen him be political on the School Board, and I fully believe he will keep that promise,” she said.

Similarly, Luckinbill stressed that the board is apolitical, as she has told constituents repeatedly during her tenure.

“This was not a reckless decision,” she said. “It was not without thought. I believe Marshall will do a good job, and I will help him as vice chair to do that.”

Despite Keene’s numerous responsibilities, Luckinbill said he is willing to dedicate the time needed to be an effective chair.

Baker, who previously was the board’s acting chair, read a lengthy statement in support of Keene.

“I would ask the school community’s grace to allow Mr. Keene an opportunity to carry out the duties of his newly elected position,” she said. “We all know that politics have been too prevalent in all aspects of our lives. This is not specific just to our School Board, but is also not a reasonable response to ignore someone because he or she is a Republican rather than a Democrat, or vice versa. However, we will all agree that a political ideology should not and cannot drive a nonpartisan School Board’s agenda.”

Baker noted that the chair speaks for the board, and promised that “this board will speak in positive and appropriate tones with all stakeholders at all times. A board chair has no greater power than any other board member, aside from being able to call a special meeting.”

Nothing has changed with Keene’s election, she said.

“We are a strong board. Together, we will get beyond national politics and a deadly virus,” Baker said. “We look forward to a peaceful democracy and a virus-free environment. It is time to move forward.”

Desilets, the board’s incoming member, is a mother of four who moved to Culpeper five years ago from Nokesville in western Prince William County.

She is a member of the Culpeper County Republican Committee. Her son, Joe Desilets, managed state Del. Nick Freitas’ campaign in his 7th Congressional District challenge to U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., last year.

A human resources professional, Desilets has said she plans to run for a full term in the next School Board election.

She told the board at its last meeting that she would focus on workforce education and Culpeper’s forthcoming Career and Technical Education Center.

West Fairfax District member Christina Burnette made the motion to appoint Desilets, which was seconded by Baker.

Luckinbill and Brown opposed Desilets’ election.

“While I absolutely welcome working with you, Mrs. Desilets, I’m going to vote no,” Luckinbill said. “I appreciated the different thinking of a different candidate, and her resume.” She was referring to Laurel Blackmon, who holds a doctorate in educational curriculum and instruction and has worked with schools in Virginia, the District of Columbia, North Carolina and Connecticut.

Barbee said she agreed with Luckinbill about Blackmon’s qualifications.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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