After a tumultuous two years in office, and a failed bid for Congress, Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers is stepping down from the board.
Sawyers announced his resignation in a Facebook post early Wednesday morning, citing “personal and professional reasons” for the move. He gave similar reasons for dropping his bid for the Democratic nomination for the chance to face Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st District, just last week.
"I want to say thank you to everyone who took an active role helping me fight the good fight," Sawyers wrote in a resignation letter addressed to Vice Chairman Lillie Jessie of the Occoquan District.
Sawyers didn’t respond to calls or messages from InsideNoVa seeking more context on his decision. His term as chairman runs through the end of 2019, and his resignation necessitates a countywide special election in the coming months to fill the seat.
In the days leading to his departure from office, Sawyers initiated a very public feud with school division Superintendent Steve Walts, calling on him to resign over the way he handled the aftermath of an accident Walts had last August. Sawyers felt Walts hid the severity of the accident from the board, and he felt the incident put the school division in legal jeopardy; Walts denied any wrongdoing and refused to step aside.
The dispute further escalated tensions on the board, as none of Sawyers’ colleagues chose to join in his criticisms of Walts. Several even vented their frustrations with the chairman at the board’s last meeting, though that has not been an unusual occurrence over the last few months.
Since Sawyers narrowly won a three-way race to become chairman in November 2015, he has frequently clashed with Republican-backed board members on a host of issues, most notably sparring with them over his support of a policy to ban discrimination against LGBTQ students and staff.
Sawyers has even butted heads with school staff during his term — not only has he filed legal actionagainst Walts and division attorney Mary McGowan, but he’s spent years tangling with Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop in court in an unrelated defamation case. A county group was even leading an effort to recall Sawyers from office and had nearly collected enough signatures to bring the matter before a circuit court judge for a hearing.
Sawyers’ opponents on the board are celebrating his resignation as a potential return to normalcy for the school division.
“A lot of us were looking at this, worrying it will drag out to 2019 [when Sawyers’ term ended],” said Willie Deutsch of Coles District, who was backed by county Republicans. “Now we have a very real possibility of having a functional board...Maybe things won’t be so crazy behind the scenes anymore.”
Deutsch, like his other three colleagues reached for interviews in the wake of Sawyers’ resignation, said he had no inkling that the chairman planned to step down before hearing the news Wednesday morning. Many expressed bewilderment at the sudden nature of the move, particularly with the board in the middle of hashing out the fiscal 2019 budget.
“I know he’s been stressed, and people have not been nice to his family and his children,” said Loree Williams of the Woodbridge District, who was backed by county Democrats. “As a parent, I know that sort of thing absolutely becomes your first priority...I am disappointed in his decision. I feel that, when you undertake something, you should see it through. But I also understand that life happens and I respect his decision.”
Justin Wilk of the Potomac District, who was also backed by county Democrats, echoed that sentiment, emphasizing that Sawyers “cares a lot about his kids and family.”
“I believe that if this was in the best interest of his family, then that was his top concern,” Wilk said.
Wilk also stressed that he doesn’t want to see this sudden shake-up on the board disrupt the budget process, and Williams fully expects that Jessie will be able to keep things on course as vice chair. Yet Sawyers’ departure will inevitably set off a new spate of political maneuvering, as both parties jockey for position in one of the few countywide seats in Prince William a year ahead of schedule.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it works out with all the moving parts we’ve got to negotiate,” said Gil Trenum of the Brentsville District, who was backed by county Republicans. “It’s going to be important for us to keep our focus, because the budget is one of the biggest things we do as a school board.”
Because the chairman represents the entire county instead of one district, board members are in uncharted waters when it comes to how to replace Sawyers. But, based on previous resignations and board vacancies, board members can make an educated guess on what’s to come.
With Sawyers’ term not set to end until Dec. 31, 2019, the county will need to petition the Prince William County Circuit Court to set a special election. School spokeswoman Diana Gulotta said that the board would likely add the matter to the ballot when voters head to the polls in November, but Deutsch suggested the June 12 primary for Congressional races could provide a convenient opportunity to put the seat up for a vote — the court could also set another date entirely.
Sawyers was the first Democrat to win the chairman’s gavel (and, with Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert and Clerk of Circuit Court Jackie Smith, one of just a handful of Democrats to ever win a countywide seat), and the seat will be a prime prize for both parties.
D.J. Jordan, spokesman for the county’s GOP, says local Republicans plan to meet soon to discuss the race, and many have already begun urging Alyson Satterwhite of the Gainesville District to take a shot at the seat. She didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Deutsch is already vocally backing her candidacy.
“I look forward to having Alyson elected chairman,” Deutsch said. “We’ve been planning on her 2019 race for a while. Now everything just got sped up...She’s definitely a conservative, but she’s been in the school division for a while, and I think a lot of people from a diverse cross-section of the county will be happy with her.”
Trenum declined to discuss Satterwhite’s potential bid for chair. He also said that he has not considered running himself, despite being the longest serving Republican-backed member of the board, calling the idea “very foreign to me.”
John Gray, who has mounted bids for the Occoquan District seat on both the Board of County Supervisors and the school board as a Republican, also says he plans to run for chairman.
The situation is a bit murkier for county Democrats — Wilk and Williams declined to discuss the upcoming political machinations, and leaders at the local party committee didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
"Like most other people, we were surprised by Mr. Sawyers' resignation this morning," Prince William County Democratic committee leaders wrote in a statement. "We wish him well and hope he resolves the personal and professional concerns that caused him to come to this decision. It is our hope that his replacement is someone who shares our community values and will work with the other members of the school board to place our children and their education first."
Yet, after Democrats scored a sizable special election victory with Smith’s win for clerk last spring, the race for chair will surely become a heated one in the coming weeks.
“Ryan Sawyers' disastrous leadership is an example of what happens when overly partisan Democrats are given responsibility of local governance,” Dottie Miller, chair of the county’s Republican committee, wrote in a statement. “Republicans, Democrats and independents want a school board that is more focused on our students than their own political career. Hopefully now we can restore our school board to a responsible governing board that is focused on education.”
Before any election, however, board members believe they’ll need to appoint an interim chair. The board has handled interim appointments before. Most recently, Shawn Brann took over on an interim basis for Trenum when he served as a Navy reservist in Africa — but no member is quite sure how things will change for the chairman’s seat.
Deutsch noted that selecting someone currently on the board isn’t an especially attractive option, considering that would open up another seat and potentially require yet another special election. Instead, he suggested that the board consider tabbing a former board member to serve temporarily.
“I think it can be done in a sane fashion,” Deutsch said. “Even if it gets heated at some points, I think we can figure it out. But it will still be a lot of time and energy.”
Gulotta says the school board's clerk will accept applications for interim chair from any eligible voter in the county through March 17. The board then has 45 days to select a chair; if it doesn't, the circuit court will appoint one.
Regardless of how the process plays out, all involved are committed to minimizing any discord associated with Sawyers’ sudden exit.
“We have a vice chair, so we’ve got to keep doing our work,” Williams said. “There’s no need for chaos or excitement, as far as I’m concerned.”