Sperryville resident Lilla Fletcher is challenging incumbent Rachel Bynum for the Piedmont District seat on the Rappahannock County School Board, saying that she hopes to end what she described as a “polarizing” environment within the schools and community at-large amid the pandemic.
Fletcher, 28, is a farmer and founder of the HelpingHannock Facebook group — a page that was created at the start of the pandemic to help connect the community and assist neighbors in need.
“When COVID hit, I had a six-month old, and I was scared — I think everyone was scared,” Fletcher said. “I'm on Facebook quite a bit, so I had noticed that a bunch of people in our community wanted to help. And I kind of just took that idea and ran with it.”
Fletcher was born and raised in Rappahannock County but did not attend school in the Rappahannock County Public Schools. As a result, Fletcher felt like she lacked connection to the community growing up.
She wants her two-year-old son to eventually attend public school in the county.
“I want him to be a part of the community like I wasn't when I was growing up,” Fletcher said. “But a huge part of that is ensuring that it's gonna be the school that we want it to be. I think that a lot of people are right now, there's a lot of polarized views. And at the end of the day, I kind of want to bring back the sense of community, because we're not a big one. So there needs to be a little more communication, a little more understanding.”
Fletcher is a write-in candidate, meaning she did not go through the process of collecting signatures from residents within her district to appear on the ballot like the other candidates running for school board, including her opponent.
Rachel Bynum, the Piedmont District School Board incumbent who’s been challenged by a write-in candidate, got her first taste of effecting change within the schools through working to repair a tattered playground.
She doesn’t believe the legitimacy of a write-in candidacy is up for debate, arguing she has an extra hurdle as somebody campaigning without her name formally appearing on the ballot.
Thoughts on the School Board’s COVID-19 response?
RCPS Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley recently made the decision to close the schools and switch to virtual learning for about a week while the district re-evaluated COVID-19 mitigation measures. The school reported many positive cases with dozens of students and staff required to be quarantined.
Fletcher believes closing the schools at the time was the correct decision, saying it may have prevented the system from having to shutter for much longer if there was an uncontrollable outbreak.
“I do applaud the school for reacting the way that they did,” Fletcher said. “They saw an uptick of cases so they decided to close down the school, and now we see the results. And we have a significantly declining COVID positive rate in the school at the moment.”
According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, there are currently seven positive COVID-19 cases and 25 students in quarantine. There have been a total of 35 positive cases in the entire school system since the start of the school year.
Fletcher doesn't believe the schools should mandate masks or vaccines, and that parents should be able to make that decision for their kids. The school board voted before the start of the school year to make masking optional, but Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state mandate that requires masks to be worn in public schools.
Fletcher said that she would support a vaccine mandate for staff and faculty as long as the district was committed to honoring medical and religious exemptions. Counties in Northern Virginia have required that public school staff and teachers be vaccinated.
Fletcher’s husband, Dr. Mattie Leto, a local chiropractor, spoke at a recent school board meeting in opposition to masking, and called for Bynum to resign in an email sent to her and other members of the school board. Bynum has been outspoken about her support for masking and pulled her child from the system after its initial surge of the virus in August.
“You care nothing for the freedoms and desires of others. No one is telling you not to wear a mask. Apparently that isn't good enough for you. You want everyone to do what you want them to do, including our children, the health of which is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS,” Leto, who also claimed masks are ineffective and harmful, wrote of Bynum in the emails obtained by the Rappahannock News.
Fletcher claimed that there is “scientific evidence on both sides” of the argument and declined to take a position on the efficacy of masking since she is not a medical professional.
Fletcher said she hopes her actions will speak for themselves and that people will allow her husband’s actions to speak for them.
“I'm just determined to meet everyone on an equal playing field and really hear what they’re saying,” she said.
How to address declining enrollment?
Fletcher said that her understanding of the problem with the district’s declining enrollment is indicative of the county’s declining population and fewer younger families moving to Rappahannock.
“I think Rappahannock right now has actually a pretty great number of students,” Fletcher said. “We’re able to really focus on contact tracing and to keep those numbers down. And we're also able to give individualized attention to students, which personally I don't think is ever really a bad thing.”
Fletcher said she’s hopeful that the county’s population will begin to increase in the near future.
Where to allocate stimulus money?
Fletcher suggested the schools should invest in outdoor tents so students could sit outside, spread out and enjoy the fresh air.
Fletcher also applauded a program in the high school known as the RCHS Academy Track, which allows students to enroll in specialized, career-driven courses that can result in additional certificates or diploma endorsements.
She supports allocating more resources to programs that help students better prepare for the future, like the Academy Track.
“I think that was probably one of the things that made me so passionate about actually joining the school board, because we have an opportunity right now to allow our kids to have a little more hands on learning and to really help them break through the mold from school versus getting into society,” Fletcher said.
Why should voters elect you?
Fletcher said that voters should elect her because she is somebody who believes in the community and hopes to see it prosper.
After completing two years at Virginia Commonwealth University, she realized that working with kids was her passion, so she left school to become a nanny. Since then, she’s learned a lot about different parenting styles which taught her how to respect people’s choices, even if some disagree, she said.
“I really want to ... show our neighbors that I have a certain level of respect for what they are saying, whether it's super polarized or not — I'm here and I'm ready to listen,” Fletcher said.