A sign displayed before the Rappahannock County School Board regular monthly meeting at the high school, Aug. 10, 2021.

A last-minute write-in challenger has emerged to face first-term incumbent Rachel Bynum in the Rappahannock County School Board Piedmont District race that was previously uncontested.

Lilla Fletcher, 28, of Sperryville, announced her candidacy for the seat on Friday via a report in The MadRapp Recorder. Fletcher, a local farmer and founder of the pandemic aid HelpingHannock Facebook group, said in an interview with the Rappahannock News that she launched her write-in campaign after several people approached her in recent months requesting that she run.

“I think people just liked what I was doing on HelpingHannock and they wanted me to do a more formal role in the community,” Fletcher said.

“I’m curious about the job that [the school board has] been doing. I know that a lot of people are questioning them at the moment, and I don’t know what policies they’re having to follow,” she said. “I’m having quite the crash course at the moment meeting people from all over the school, trying to get their opinions and trying to learn what policies have to be followed.”

Fletcher said that her campaign is not intended to be hostile toward Bynum, co-owner of Waterpenny Farm and an outspoken member of the school board who’s criticized the body for not mandating masks in the face of the highly infectious delta variant and permitting misinformation about masking and vaccines to permeate meetings — all of which Bynum argued contributed to the schools’ troubled start.

“I think Rachel runs an amazing business and she seems like an extraordinarily sweet woman, so [my campaign is] not to bash anyone,” Fletcher said.

Bynum, who recently pulled her child from the public schools amid a COVID-19 outbreak that shuttered the system for a week, said she’s glad that a resident is taking interest in pursuing a seat on the school board, especially since there have been few contested races in recent years. She said Fletcher is a “really nice person,” but expressed skepticism of her motivations.

“I always think it’s good if someone really takes a genuine interest in our schools and in serving the public … I do think it’s clear that she’s running based on the past month’s mask drama,” Bynum said. “I don’t know whether she’s been paying attention the rest of the time I’ve been on the board.”

In the weeks leading up to Fletcher’s campaign announcement, her husband, Dr. Mattie Leto, a local chiropractor who at a recent school board meeting spoke of his disbelief in the efficacy of masks, sent an email to Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley and the other school board members demanding that Bynum resign because of her stance that masking should be mandated in schools.

“You seem only committed to your feelings, your beliefs, and your ideology, all of which have nothing to do with the health and safety of children,” Leto wrote of Bynum in emails dated Aug. 16 that were obtained by Rappahannock News. “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.”

“We provided you with factual information and data that masks do NOT work, they are NOT harmless, they are actually harmful, and that WE HAVE THE FREEDOM TO MAKE OUR OWN HEALTH CHOICES,” he wrote.

Public health experts and scientists agree that masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Fletcher said she was aware of the emails her husband sent. “I can definitely say I advised against it, because I was questioning running or not at that time and I said, ‘well, that definitely will not help me.’ But we all have our own opinions,” she said.

“I think that it’s an extremely difficult job, because the school board’s role is to be the locality’s voice for the school system … I think the school board as a whole has done a pretty amazing job [containing outbreaks],” Fletcher said of the body when asked how it handled the schools’ re-opening.

Bynum repackaged one of her responses to Leto as a Rappahannock News letter to the editor.

“I will continue masking in public indoor spaces or crowds and align my behavior with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines until the pandemic is over,” she wrote in the letter. “Thank you for respecting my choices, as I will respect yours, though masked and from a distance. I am a grown up person, and will not be bullied into dismissing the truth.”

In a statement on Facebook, Bynum reiterated her stance that masking should be required in schools and that officials should follow the guidance of public health officials in formulating its response to the resurgent pandemic. She also touted what she believed to be accomplishments made in her first term, including the hiring of a school social worker, the transformation of the elementary school courtyard, and a monthly email update sent to parents about the board’s agenda.

“I believe in finding common ground and engaging with one another in a civil manner — as my wonderful predecessor on the School Board said — I believe ‘we can disagree without being disagreeable,’” Bynum wrote. “I hope for your continued support and promise to put honest care and energy into my work on the School Board.”

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