A joint meeting between the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and the county school board last week erupted into a shouting match over an implicit bias presentation.
The meeting began with presentations about the school division’s revenue projections and 2021 budget outlook. But about 30 minutes in, the agenda moved to an “implicit bias presentation” led by Maria Burgos, the division’s supervisor of global learning and culturally responsive instruction.
Before Burgos could start the presentation, Gainesville District Supervisor Pete Candland jumped in.
“I guess I was surprised to see this on the agenda,” Candland said. “I know I asked about this at the last combined meeting and was basically shot down on getting any additional information. I’m wondering just as a start, what is the purpose behind this presentation?”
School Board Chair Babur Lateef explained that a number of school board members and Woodbridge Supervisor Margaret Franklin had been asking what the division does with regard to bias training and cultural competency.
Loree Williams, the Woodbridge District representative to the school board, said that adding the presentation to the meeting’s agenda was her specific request. She said that since 2019 she had wanted to hold a joint meeting in which implicit bias was discussed for the benefit of both boards.
“We’re all elected leaders in a majority-minority county, so I thought it would be very wise of us to learn about implicit bias,” Williams told Candland. “The state of Virginia and the school division has taken a very progressive stance on following anti-racism policy training. … Really to help us better understand how we should be looking at things,how our own biases affect our own judgments and for an educational purpose.”
Candland called the idea “insulting” to the board of supervisors and “highly inappropriate.” Williams and fellow school board member Lillie Jessie said it wasn’t about the board of supervisors specifically, but said that everyone has some implicit bias they should be aware of. Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson then shot back at Williams, bringing up a Department of Justice complaint Williams and other school board members filed in 2017 in a dispute with the supervisors over funding of new school construction.
“Frankly, Ms. Williams, I have a hard time taking you serious that you truly want to work together with people who don’t look like you or think politically like you, when you file a DOJ complaint about me because of a vote that I took and I proudly stand by to help our students,” Lawson said. Lawson said she would pack up and leave, before Board Chair Ann Wheeler interjected to say that she had gone on too long.
Soon enough, all three Republicans on the board of supervisors – Candland, Lawson and Coles Supervisor Yesli Vega – were outside the meeting room, shooting a video that would be quickly posted to Candland’s Facebook page.
The presentation went on for the remaining supervisors and the school board, with Burgos presenting techniques for recognizing implicit bias, historical assumptions about groups, and behavioral and social biases that don’t involve race or ethnicity.
Candland broadcast his view from outside the meeting room.
“During this critical time of the global pandemic, kids having issues at home, concerns about funding our schools moving forward, they decided to take this time to talk about implicit bias, critical race theory, talking about how the Board of County Supervisors needs to accept this training on this concept of implicit bias,” Candland said in the video. “We should be using this time to talk about the critical issues facing the kids in Prince William County, and I think it's an absolute disgrace that the school board took time and resources.”
School Board Chair Babur Lateef said the training, similar to what he needs to complete every year to maintain hospital privileges for his ophthalmology practice, was on the agenda that had been sent to all in attendance over a week before the meeting. He didn’t hear anything from any of the Republican supervisors about it before the meeting.
“Especially the two veteran members of the supervisors, they know how this works. If you see a public notice 10 days in advance, you know to reach out to either Chair Wheeler or myself,” Lateef told InsideNoVa. “They just wanted to grandstand in front of the cameras about this.”
Ultimately, though, Lateef said it wouldn’t further damage the relationship between the two boards. The arrival of budget season, instead, will trump last week’s fracas.