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.
When her son entered the first grade at Rappahannock County Public Schools he came home saying the old, wooden playground was closed after being deemed too dangerous because arsenic had poisoned the foundation. Administrators never sent a note home to parents, Bynum said, while her son and his classmates were left playing within gravel during their precious recess time.
Bynum took up the cause within the PTO where she became head of a playground committee and was able to secure funds to construct a new play set for students.
“I didn’t have time to waste. My kid was going into first grade! … When you think about kids and how long they’ve been alive, like, one year of a six year old’s life is like a big percentage of his or her life, right? So every day, every semester, every week is important. So we do have to think about that as we’re trying to react to things. We have to think about the quality right now all the time,” said Bynum, whose campaign up to this point has been defined by her outspoken criticism of the schools’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a rapidly changing situation.
“Being a parent, I have that urgency and … as a farmer I’m just always reacting to little changes in the weather. At the farmer’s market you make a million little adjustments and you end up having a successful day,” she said, acknowledging the parallels running through both the playground anecdote and her reaction to the schools’ pandemic response.
Bynum, who operates Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville alongside her husband, moved to Rappahannock County in 1999 to pursue a career in agriculture. She grew up in Connecticut and went to college in Minnesota where she obtained a degree in environmental studies and met her now-husband, Eric.
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.
After school, the couple moved to Loudoun County to work on a vegetable farm and decided they wanted to run their own, bringing them to Sperryville. Her first job in Rappahannock, apart from farming, was as a substitute teacher in the public schools.
“I really liked what I saw there,” she said of the experience.
Moving forward, Bynum said she would like to stake her campaign on promoting community and civic responsibility, as outlined by the Virginia Department of Education in its profile of what defines an ideal public school graduate. Being a responsible citizen is more important now, amid the pandemic, than ever before, she said.
Thoughts on the School Board’s COVID-19 response?
Bynum was at first highly critical of the schools’ response to the pandemic as the academic year began and the delta variant ravaged schools across the country, including Rappahannock County.
But after an outbreak of the virus shuttered the schools for a week, officials reworked their mitigation strategies and reverted to the precautions in place in January at the height of the pandemic. Bynum, who pulled her son from the schools amid that outbreak, argued the protocols in place now, such as universal masking and enhanced distancing measures, show promise.
Bynum said the schools should discard any models suggesting they shouldn't follow Gov. Ralph Northam’s mask mandate, while praising the schools for promoting COVID-19 vaccine resources in official communications.
“I think that’s the kind of thing a public school should do … I don’t think it should have been a very controversial point of view that we should follow the health guidelines in order to have school,” Bynum said.
She wished the governor had mandated masks in K-12 setting sooner, and that other members of the School Board and administration had taken the virus more seriously, saying the debate within the board on facial coverings seemingly “came out of nowhere” following what was seen on the schools’ behalf as an aggressive response to the pandemic in the previous school year.
The School Board’s decision not to mandate masks following two back-to-back meetings was “very political,” Bynum said. At one point, she said, the body considered not even holding an emergency meeting on the matter.
“I would have loved to have seen an executive decision from our superintendent, just saying: ‘Hey, we’re gonna have twice the occupancy in our schools now … we still are opening up five days a week, so that’s an improvement … so, in order to have the best chance at a safe reopening, let’s just go with the same way it was at the end of school,’” Bynum said.
She also hoped that school officials had publicly addressed parents’ reports of their children being bullied during the first days back from summer vacation for opting to wear a mask. Parents said masked kids were called derogatory political terms by unmasked students.
“Any kind of trauma, you’re not just supposed to say, ‘Oh well, that was yesterday and so it’s over and I’m gonna just go forward and who cares what that person did to me.’ … You can’t really live past that if you don’t actually kind of say, ‘yeah, that was a hurtful thing,’” Bynum said.
She supports vaccine mandates for students who wish to play high school sports, a measure taken in both Fairfax and Loudoun County Public Schools. And Bynum is in favor of requiring vaccines for all staff and teachers, as has been done in Northern Virginia counties.
“I don’t know if there's a political will to do that. I’m not gonna die on that hill, but I think it would be the safest way to proceed,” Bynum said. Promoting vaccines, she said, falls squarely in line with the schools’ “commit to be fit” campaign, and should continue to be encouraged.
How to address declining enrollment?
The schools need to become more attractive to people who have the financial means to afford moving to Rappahannock County from Northern Virginia and elsewhere, Bynum said. It should also be desirable for the growing Latino population, many of whom move to the county for jobs in agriculture, she said.
The system, she said, lacks the “fun stuff,” like extracurricular activities and sports, that parents look for when deciding to send their kids to a school.
The schools also need to become more welcoming to diverse groups of people who share diverse beliefs, she said. Bynum said she felt isolated because of her opposition to popularly espoused opinions in the area on how to address the pandemic. Parents she knows who moved to the county didn’t even consider Rappahannock schools because it didn’t fit these criteria.
“If we want to grow our school and get more money from the state, we need to have it be a school that a lot of different people would like to go to,” she said.
Where to allocate stimulus money?
Bynum said she would like to use pandemic aid to help pay for more teachers in addressing learning loss, while also investing into renewable energy. She suggested the schools’ could save tens of thousands of dollars if it installed solar.
Why should voters elect you?
Bynum said she takes the job very seriously and that she’s been able to connect the schools with people who offer resources and intellectual capital. In a Facebook post, she outlined several of what she believed to be accomplishments, including helping to hire the schools’ first social worker and serving as the School Board’s liaison to the Headwaters Foundation.