After weeks of heated public discourse and bitter allegations, the president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has apparently been voted out.
The rest of the organization’s executive committee voted 3-1 on July 9 for her removal.
Harry Jackson, who was president-elect of the TJ PTSA, led the effort to remove former president Bonnie Qin. Following the vote, he immediately took over as president. As president-elect, Jackson would have sat behind Qin for the 2021-22 school year before assuming the role in June 2022.
The move followed a closely contested election for officer positions last month and a threat from the Virginia PTA to revoke the organization’s charter. The disputes have centered around admissions changes at the magnet school in Fairfax County as well as teaching of critical race theory.
Among the reasons Jackson cited for Qin’s removal were restricting access to records and preventing the executive committee from communicating with the rest of the PTSA.
“There were a lot of issues there,” Jackson told InsideNoVa. “For refusing to comply and refusing to acknowledge our requests, we had no choice but to vote for Ms. Qin's removal.”
Qin declined to comment for this article. She has not publicly acknowledged her removal from office, and the PTSA's official communications channels have not reported the change.
Many parents are skeptical of the reasons behind Qin’s removal, believing it to be part of an effort by advocates against admissions changes and critical race theory to gain control of the PTSA .
“Bonnie Qin has been bullied by a handful of people who are really, in my opinion, political operatives,” said Yvette Rivers, a member of the TJ PTSA. “I'm very upset about how they try to twist words to make Bonnie into some type of devil. She has been severely abused.”
The executive committee’s decision came shortly after the Virginia Parent Teacher Association sent a letter declaring its intent to revoke the TJ PTSA’s charter.
The Virginia PTA cited disrespect of the now-removed president, hostile behavior and other violations of the TJ PTSA bylaws in the June 23 letter. Should its charter in fact be revoked, the TJ PTSA would be dissolved, and its assets – including bank accounts holding $80,000 – would be seized by the Virginia PTA.
Thomas Jefferson, or TJ, is a magnet school available to students across Northern Virginia who meet certain admissions criteria. U.S. News & World Report ranks it as the nation’s number one public high school.
In December, the Fairfax School Board made major revisions to TJ’s admission criteria, scrapping a standardized test and written teacher recommendations, among other changes. The overhaul resulted in a historically diverse new class of students offered admission for the fall of 2021.
Over the past year, debates over changes to the school’s admissions process have dominated TJ parent and alumni communities. The TJ PTSA is no exception. Tension and division developed as discussions about admissions changes and critical race theory overtook an organization once dedicated strictly to nonpartisan matters.
Former PTSA executive committee member Asra Nomani is the co-founder of the Coalition for TJ – a group of parents who opposed changes to the admissions process – and the vice president of Parents Defending Education, which advocates against critical race theory in schools.
During the 2020-21 school year, Nomani used PTSA meetings to lobby against admissions changes and so-called “anti-racist” curriculum. Notably, in mid-April, Nomani and other members of the PTSA’s Diversity Committee released a statement calling on principal Ann Bonitatibus to resign for authorizing a controversial school-wide lesson on systemic racism. Nomani and the committee contended that the lesson promoted critical race theory and violated Fairfax County Public Schools regulations.
“I was constantly trying to question positions that we were taking or not taking. You can’t walk on eggshells about these kinds of issues. You have to deal with reality,” Nomani told InsideNoVa. “We're in every newspaper from the Washington Post to the New York Times about what's happening with admissions. It's not because we're a bunch of troublemakers; it's because people care about the future.”
But while the Coalition for TJ’s growing block of supporters within the PTSA applauded Nomani’s continued advocacy, others were outraged. For months, parents filed complaints with the Virginia PTA against Nomani and other parents over perceived conflicts of interest, hostile behavior, and for adopting PTSA-wide political stances without going through proper procedures.
As complaints piled up, pressure grew within the Virginia PTA throughout the year to revoke the TJ PTSA’s charter. The Virginia PTA didn’t officially release its letter of intent until a new TJ PTSA executive committee took office, and the disharmony among the newly elected officials became clear.
The transfer of power between executive committees in early June capped an unusually contentious PTSA election cycle. While two of the candidates ran unopposed, each of the other four winners had a margin of victory of less than 8 percentage points. Around 45% of the PTSA’s nearly 950 members voted.
In the end, of the six officers elected to the executive committee, four – including Jackson – were members of the Coalition for TJ. Because she was president-elect the year before, Qin automatically became the new president. Like the two non-Coalition members elected, she believed that the PTSA should not be involved in politics.
Despite the clear ideological divisions, many of those invested in the process hoped that the end of elections would bring a return to normalcy for the TJ PTSA.
“I sent Harry an email congratulating him. I had hoped that he would follow through on his election speech, in which he talked about unifying the community,” Rivers said. Rivers lost to Jackson in the election for president-elect by 33 votes out of 434 votes cast.
However, between assertions that Qin pushed for the principal to have voting rights on the executive committee – Coalition for TJ members say it was to prevent their block from a majority on the PTSA – and Jackson’s failed proposal to censure Qin for allegedly racist and sexist remarks made during the election process, dreams of unity evaporated quickly.
The executive committee planned for multiple meetings in the days after the election, but due to disagreements over proposed agendas and proper procedures, they were canceled. By June 23, when the Virginia PTA’s letter of intent arrived, the executive committee had not yet met as a whole.
“I would say there is no decorum,” executive committee member Laura Marschoun said. Marschoun, the PTSA secretary, was the only board member to vote against Qin’s removal.
After the letter, the committee was expected to provide the Virginia PTA with an official response. The officers continued to spar, though, and Qin and Jackson drafted different response letters. Qin’s response blamed the Coalition for TJ members for the violations in the Virginia PTA’s letter of intent. Jackson’s response, on the other hand, outright refuted the allegations in the letter.
On July 2, the executive committee voted 4-3 to send Jackson’s response to the Virginia PTA instead of Qin’s. All four Coalition members voted in favor of Jackson’s response.
After that meeting, first vice president Li Yang and second vice president Jun Wang both resigned. Wang is a member of the Coalition for TJ, while Yang was part of Qin’s block on the board.
“I have seen parents attacking parents recently, and I also became a target of personal attacks. Internal conflict of the community is the last thing that I want to see. If I cannot help, I choose to step out,” Wang said in his letter of resignation.
Qin called a special membership meeting on July 5 to discuss the removal of “non-compliant” officers from the executive committee and thus address the violations noted in the Virginia PTA’s letter of intent. She canceled the meeting after legal action was threatened by Coalition for TJ parents, who claimed that Qin’s attempts to hold the meeting violated PTSA bylaws.
In a statement shortly after, Qin pushed for the three remaining Coalition members on the committee to resign and said she and Marschoun would also step down once they did. The suggestion gained support among many of the parents who want the PTSA to remain apolitical. A Change.org petition urging the entire executive committee to resign has collected over 250 signatures to date.
“All of them have demonstrated an inability to work together,” Rivers said July 7. “At the end of the day, they are not succeeding as a group. Everyone resigning is seen as the only way that the TJ PTSA can save its charter and convince the Virginia PTA to give us another chance.”
Amid the controversy, community members launched a flurry of accusations against each other, alleging indifference and wrongdoing.
Members of the Coalition for TJ – including Nomani and parent Glenn Miller – publicly accused Qin of working to overturn a fair and free election. They alleged that Qin, beyond sending complaints to trigger the Virginia PTA’s letter of intent, had refused to give newly elected executive board members access to the TJ PTSA website and records on Google Drive.
In posts on TJ Parent Facebook groups, Miller compared Qin’s actions after the PTSA election to those of President Donald Trump after last year’s election in November.
Similarly, Nomani attacked the PTSA President on her Twitter page. “The [president] leading the coup with[the Virginia PTA’s] help just cancelled an illegal Mon night tribunal. We won – for now,” Nomani wrote to her more than 60,000 Twitter followers.
Meanwhile, Nick Costescu, last year’s PTSA president, charged Jackson with using his PTSA position to promote a political agenda.
“Glenn and Asra and Harry’s actions and the actions of parents on both ‘sides’ who escalated things during this past year are directly to blame for the situation we are in now,” Costescu wrote on Facebook.
In an email chain posted by Costescu, Jackson did not sound severely concerned about the potential loss of $80,000, writing that it would be “unfortunate, but recoverable.”
Ultimately, members of the Coalition, which held a 3-2 majority on the executive committee, prevailed. Jackson and the two other Coalition members on the committee called an emergency meeting to remove Qin. The next day, the three voted her out, with only Marschoun present to cast a dissenting vote. Qin was unavailable to attend the meeting.
Miller announced the decision on Facebook on Friday night. The Coalition for TJ member, who was appointed PTSA government relations representative last year, said he was asked by the executive committee to post the announcement.
In claiming that Miller has no authority to speak on behalf of the PTSA, posts from the TJ PTSA Facebook account suggest that news about the removal is incorrect. It is unclear who exactly runs the account.
On “Save the PTSA,” a private Facebook group formed shortly after the Virginia PTA’s letter of intent, members expressed anger about the decision.
“The truth is that the men of PTSA have taken over with a purpose. They put intense pressure on Bonnie to make her resign,” parent Sanjita Sethi wrote in a post on the group. “Now, what? They will trot around and run the PTSA on the shoulders of volunteers who know none of their misdeeds? I am done ‘saving them.’”
Soon after Jackson took over as president, the executive committee appointed Shawnna Robert Yashar as first vice president and Pat Fallon as second vice president. Yashar is a supporter of the Coalition for TJ. While Fallon’s views specifically are not known, his wife is a cofounder of the Coalition and the Director of Advocacy for Parents Defending Education.
Despite not addressing the allegations in the Virginia PTA’s letter of intent, Jackson remains confident that the TJ PTSA will not be disbanded.
“We're very confident for a number of reasons. Most importantly, the Virginia PTA did not follow their own procedures within their bylaws and it denied us the opportunity to do our due process,” Jackson said.
Jackson said a number of parents have also threatened legal action against the Virginia PTA should they revoke the charter and seize the TJ PTSA’s assets.
He added that even though all but one of the executive committee members are affiliated with the Coalition for TJ, the TJ PTSA will not take any organizational-wide political stances. This does not mean, however, that the group will stay out of political matters, as it has in previous years.
“The PTSA is a conduit for the expression of the opinions of the parents. That being said, even though my position is well-known, the PTSA is nonpartisan,” Jackson said. “If you're going to be pushing to have or not have CRT [critical race theory], the discussion has to account for both sides and provide an accurate portrayal of the merits for and against.”
Anuj Khemka is a rising senior at TJ and a member of the editorial board of tjTODAY.