Manassas Journal Messenger | When looking at school board politics, just follow the money

For the past several weeks, I have shared with you the findings from my research into the charter school application currently before the Prince William County School Board.

Since I still have not received any materials promised to me by Mr. Barton of the Prince William Linguistics Academy (PWLA), I took my research in a slightly different direction this week. Campaign finance reports were due Monday, so Tuesday morning I renewed acquaintances at the Board of Elections and reviewed campaign finance reports.

These reports can provide interesting tidbits of information about how much money is being raised and from whom. Two of the reports were particularly interesting in light of the charter school application before the school board.

If, as the saying goes, money talks, then Steve Keen, candidate for chairman of the school board, is listening to a very small group of people.

Mr. Keen’s most recent campaign report shows that he has raised $4,400 and has loaned himself $1,200. Of the $4,400, nearly 50 percent – $2,100 – is from Ms. Harris, Mr. Barton and two other members of the PWLA Board.

Technically, Mr. Keen is within his rights to accept campaign contributions from persons with business before the board, including persons who will financially benefit from this business. Campaign contributions are, in fact, the sole exception to the Conflict of Interest laws (see VA Code 2.2-3103). But just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. A politically ethical person in this situation would do one of three things: (1) return the money; (2) donate the money to a charity; (3) recuse himself from the vote.

Mr. Keen, however, is not alone in his technically proper, though ethically questionable, actions.

Neabsco Board member Julie Lucas has also received money from members of the PWLA board. Specifically, she has received $973.40 from Ms. Harris, Mr. Barton, and Buck Waters, as well as $670 from fellow board members Lyle Beefelt, Keen and Don Richardson. The contribution from Ms. Harris may even be higher, as Ms. Harris indicated in a telephone conversation that she had given more money to Lucas than to Keen, but that’s not reflected in the financial reports. Like Mr. Keen, Ms. Lucas should either give the money back, donate it or recuse herself from the vote.

Not realistic? Don’t say that in front of Sean Connaughton. He demonstrated this is not only realistic, but appropriate. Over the summer, Mr. Connaughton’s campaign received a perfectly legal campaign contribution from a group of dry cleaners with business before the board of county supervisors. Mr. Connaughton certainly knew this contribution was legitimate, yet was also aware that the appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest is just as bad as actually having a conflict.

Mr. Connaughton donated that contribution so that he could vote on the matter before the board with the proverbial clean hands. Mr. Keen and Ms. Lucas should follow Mr. Connaughton’s lead and divorce themselves from the appearance of their votes being bought. As the saying goes, perception is reality.

The perception in the community is that the votes have been bought and paid for.

And people are angry. They feel disenfranchised – a big word for powerless.

“What can I do?” asked one person who called me. “I don’t feel like there is anything I can do.”

Situations like this cause people to become apathetic about their government. In a microcosm, we are experiencing much of what’s wrong with politics in our state and country: the perception that votes are up for sale, that regardless of the merit or lack of merit of a proposal, we will have it forced upon us by a group that possesses the financial means to wear down the opposition with smoke and mirrors, a group that promises answers, information and openness but delivers nothing except obstruction.

I know the above words sound incendiary. Even my husband is packing to move into a temporary bunker away from the flames that may erupt. But I myself am angry.

I – someone with extensive knowledge of politics and government, someone who believes that Mr. Smith can go to Washington, someone who has faith that even one person can make a difference – feel powerless to have any effect on the vote for this proposal.

I don’t feel that the “Gang of Four” has read this proposal. I think they’re going to pass this proposal regardless of the impact it will have on our excellent – not perfect but always improving – schools.

Denise Oppenhagen lives in Lake Ridge.

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