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A Virginia school board member seeking a promotion to the state legislature may have used her position in an attempt to sabotage her election opponent — a teacher in the school district she presides over, records show.
Democrat Stella Pekarsky, who currently serves on the Fairfax County School Board, was personally involved in discussions over whether to punish Julie Perry, a history teacher who is running against her in this year’s District 36 Senate race, according to emails and calendar entries obtained by The Daily Wire through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The records show a Pekarsky donor sent Centreville High School Principal Chad Lehman a complaint objecting to conservative social media posts the history teacher made as part of her campaign. Lehman forwarded the complaint to the school board’s Assistant Superintendent Penny Gros, who said she would seek guidance about what to do. That guidance appears to have come from none other than Pekarsky, and it was followed by a memo reprimanding Perry and threatening her job.
“Your behavior negatively impacts the goals of this department and others,” the reprimand said, citing the campaign posts. “Any action that brings the school system into disrepute may be just cause for dismissal.”
Experts said the conduct of Pekarsky and taxpayer-funded employees could constitute serious misconduct intended to impact the election, saying it is improper for individual board members to be involved in the discipline of specific teachers — much less their own campaign opponents.
The initial complaint came on May 7, not long after Perry announced that she was running for the same seat as Pekarsky, from Robert Rigby, a substitute teacher who is close with Pekarsky. Rigby wrote to Principal Lehman to say that he had filed a complaint with Child Protective Services (CPS) against Perry, citing a social media post she made regarding scientific research that found that autistic children are especially prone to transgenderism.
Lehman forwarded the complaint to his supervisor, Gros, who said she would “follow up tomorrow after getting some guidance.”
The next day, CPS alerted the school that it had dismissed the complaint as unfounded. But soon after, a second complaint was made asking the school itself to take action.
That complaint came on May 11 at 3:15 p.m., when Vanessa Hall – a local Democrat activist who was appointed to a sex-ed committee by the school board – emailed Lehman pointing to Perry’s “numerous social media posts that are homophobic, transphobic, and deeply hurtful to the entire community.” It said that the tweet — in which Perry said she had personally seen how trangender ideology affected an autistic student — showed that “she is using students for her political gain.”
Lehman again forwarded the email to Gros, and calendar entries obtained by The Daily Wire indicate that she within an hour was meeting with Pekarsky to discuss Perry. Gros’ calendar shows a “Phone Call: Stella (re: Julie Perry)” for 4:00 to 4:30 that day, according to emails and calendar entries. And at 4:29, Gros replied to Lehman that she was ready to discuss how to proceed, saying, “I am available if you are.”
A FOIA request for references to Perry in Gros’ account showed no evidence that she consulted anyone else other than Pekarsky for “guidance” on the matter.
The next week, Lehman summoned Perry to a meeting in which Hall’s complaint and the fact that a CPS complaint was filed were used as evidence that she had brought the school system into “disrepute,” even though CPS dismissed the complaint, according to a summary memo that Lehman placed in Perry’s personnel file.
The reprimand ordered Perry to avoid any posts on social media that reference her teaching position.
“Moving forward, you must avoid social media posts that draw a connection to … your role as a teacher at Centreville High School,” it said. (Pekarsky’s own website says she is a teacher, even though, according to public records, she does not have a teaching license.)
Pam Kirby, a former member of the Scottsdale, Arizona, school board who now leads the Arizona Coalition for School Board Members, said it would be abnormal for an individual school board member to be involved in the discipline case of a specific employee.
School board members have “no authority” as individuals, “they only have authority as a body” through votes, she told The Daily Wire. “It’s abusing your role as a school board member, whether there’s an election or not. That authority is given to the superintendent, and the board manages the superintendent,” she said.
The governance manual outlining the role of the Fairfax County School board members requires members to agree to “delegate authority for the administration of the schools to the Superintendent” and “refrain from using the board position for personal or partisan gain and avoid any conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety.”
“I will respect the confidentiality of privileged information and make no individual decisions or commitments that might compromise the board or administration,” it says.
The board’s Conflict of Interest Policy further states that “a School Board member shall disqualify himself or herself from participating in any transaction on behalf of the school system if he or she has a personal interest,” noting that “violation of the State and Local Government Conflict of Interests Act, which is the basis of this policy, may result in enforcement action by the Commonwealth Attorney, including but not limited to criminal prosecution.”
Virginia law says a public official may not “use for his own economic benefit or that of another party confidential information that he has acquired by reason of his public position” or “use his public position to retaliate or threaten to retaliate against any person for expressing views on matters of public concern.”
In the Fairfax County Public Schools rulebook, it says that a dispute over how policy applies to an employee personnel matter would only reach the school board after six layers of appeals.
Violations of rules for board members can result in the “removal from any leadership or committee positions.”
Pekarsky, who is squaring off against Perry for the Senate seat representing western Fairfax County with early voting starting this week, acknowledged in a statement that the CPS call by her donor was a “misuse” of the CPS system, but claimed she did not know about it. “I have recused myself from anything to do with any internal school system process involving her,” she said.
A FOIA request of Pekarsky’s emails including Perry’s name showed no email saying she recused herself from anything
Pekarsky did not deny the “Phone Call: Stella (re: Julie Perry)” immediately following the CPS complaint, and did not explain the records or what would have been discussed if not the CPS complaint, instead suggesting that her opponent is a Nazi.
A spokesperson for FCPS defended the contact between the school and Pekarsky. “There is an expectation that all Fairfax County Public Schools regional area superintendents keep their magisterial school board members informed about matters that could be of community concern at any schools under that member’s purview,” the spokesperson said. “Such updates are informational.”
But Karen Hilz, a former school board member in Franklin County, Virginia, who has run trainings for school board members, said “The pecking order is assistant superintendent, superintendent, board. So why wasn’t it elevated to the superintendent to inform the board? … And did they reach out solely to [Pekarsky] or inform all board members? If it’s for information purposes you inform all school board members.”
She said the conduct by political activists, FCPS staff, and Pekarsky was “without a doubt election interference.”
“Obviously there’s a relationship there, is what it seems to me, and they were collaborating on what to do with an opponent, which is totally inappropriate,” she added.
Perry said a successful CPS complaint would mean “they would have fired me immediately, ripped my teachers license away from me, I would have never gotten another teaching job, and there’s a chance I would have gone to jail,” she said.
The school district initially attempted to conceal the identities of both Hall and Rigby under FOIA, before conceding that it had no justification for withholding Hall’s name. It continued to conceal Rigby’s name, saying CPS complaints are private under the law.
But Hayden Fisher, a lawyer who is running for another state Senate seat as a Republican, noted that Virginia law also says a complainant’s identity can be unmasked if the complaint was “in bad faith or with malicious intent.” Representing Perry, he made that argument in court.
On September 8, a Fairfax County judge compelled CPS to provide the name of the complainant for his review. The judge said he would investigate whether the person is tied to Pekarsky, and if he found connections, the complaint would likely be presumed to be malicious, Fisher said.
Perry deleted the tweet after only an hour, meaning it was seen by few people and the two complainants were likely working together, Fisher said.
Public records reviewed by The Daily Wire show that Hall, who emailed a complaint to the principal, is one of four officers of a Democrat activist group called 4 Public Education. Another officer of that group is Rigby, raising the possibility that Rigby filed the CPS complaint, with Hall following up with a school-specific complaint when the CPS complaint did not work.
Rigby last year served as an advisor to the Pride Liberation Project, which said it would harbor minors who wanted to run away from their parents, saying, “In the event of you needing to leave your home, we can provide you with emergency housing from a supportive, Queer friendly adult.”
Rigby acknowledged to The Daily Wire that he made the CPS complaint.
Rigby has donated more than $9,000 to Virginia Democrats since 2018, including more than $800 to Pekarsky. He donated to Pekarsky’s Senate campaign three days after Pekarsky spoke to the assistant superintendent, and one day before the principal summoned Perry to threaten her with discipline.
That means the judge may rule the complaint malicious. But that might not come until after the election, with voting beginning September 22 and ending November 7.
Perry said “there have to be consequences” that punish election interference.