When Roanoke County students went back to school recently, the school system tweeted out a picture of all five school board members holding a “welcome back” sign.
That prompted one Roanoke County parent to post on her Facebook page: “I was thinking this morning about how few men I’ve seen since we’ve been introduced to the public school system. It’s an all female administration at Cave Spring. So I had to laugh when I saw this picture.” She added the hashtag: “#whitedudesincharge.”
You see, all five members of the Roanoke County school board are men. (Actually, you can see in the photo at right).
The parent’s Facebook post triggered a lively discussion. Yes, the phrases “toxic masculinity” and “mansplaining” got used. It also made us wonder: How unusual is it to have an all-male school board?
The short answer: Very.
We looked up every school board in Virginia. Out of 133 school systems, we could only find five with all-male school boards: Bristol, Carroll County, Highland County, Prince George County and Roanoke County. All the others have at least one woman — and typically more. Most have near-parity between genders — with odd-numbered boards, you can’t have an equal number. But there are lots of boards with two women and three men (in this part of Virginia that includes Botetourt County, Floyd County, Galax, Radford, Patrick County, Pulaski County, Rockbridge County and Salem) or three women and four men (around here, Buena Vista).
Now here’s where things get even more interesting: We found six boards that have an even split between women and women, either because they’re localities that have an even number of board members, or because there’s a vacancy. In this part of Virginia, that includes Franklin County, Harrisonburg and Staunton.
We also found 54 localities with female-majority boards. In this part of Virginia, that list of female-majority boards includes Bath County, Covington, Craig County, Martinsville, Montgomery County, Roanoke, Tazewell County, Waynesboro and Wythe County. On these female-majority boards, sometimes there’s near-parity between women and men — and sometimes there isn’t. In Montgomery County, the school board consists of six women and one man. In Waynesboro, the board is four women and one man. In Martinsville, there are four women with one vacancy — so for the moment is an all-female board. That raises another question: Are there any other all-female school boards in Virginia? Yes there are. The city of Franklin has six women with one vacancy. Meanwhile, Lancaster County and New Kent County have all-female boards without any vacancies — five women and no men.
Politics and demography seem to have nothing to do with the number of women on these school boards. The female-majority boards aren’t just in so-called “progressive” parts of Virginia. They are all over — in rural areas, in suburbs, in central cities. The two localities with all-female boards — Lancaster and New Kent — are both decidedly rural and conservative. The localities with female-majority boards range from the two localities that voted most strongly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Arlington, four women and one man, and Alexandria, eight women and one man) to Donald Trump’s second-best county (Tazewell, with three women and two men).
So how, then, do we explain the five localities with all-male school boards? They are simply outliers. One obvious reason they have all-male school boards is because few women have run for the school board in those localities. You can’t elect people who don’t run.
Let’s take a closer look at Roanoke County. It stands out on the short list of all-male school boards because it’s the biggest of the bunch. In fact, it’s bigger (estimated population 93,672) than the other four localities put together (85,495). There is surely no lack of women in Roanoke County qualified to serve on a school board, so why do so few run? Running for the school board is, literally, the easiest office to run for. By law, it’s non-partisan, so there’s no party nomination to secure. Just circulate petitions to get the required number of signatures and, boom, you’re on the ballot. Yet very few women ever have. That alone is unusual.
We tried to find a “sister county” to Roanoke County — another strongly Republican suburb. There aren’t many of those; other suburbs have shifted Democratic. But for the ones that come closest, many have female-majority boards. In Stafford County, it’s five women and two men. In Virginia Beach, it’s 10 women and one man. There’s simply no underlying reason we can find to explain why Roanoke County has an all-male school board other than that few women have ever run — seven to be precise — and only one of them has ever won.
Keep in mind that the county didn’t have school board elections until 1994. Before then, school board members were appointed by the courts — that was one way the political organization of U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. controlled the state through much of the 20th century. Democracy as we know it is, historically speaking, a recent innovation in Virginia. Since the first round of staggered elections in 1994 and 1995, the only woman to be elected has been Marion Roark. She was elected from the Catawba District in 1995, then re-elected in 1999 and 2003 before narrowly losing re-election in 2007. The Catawba District is unusual because in there has been at least one woman running in six of the seven elections there. In Windsor Hills, a woman has only run twice — in 1994 and 2001. In Vinton, a woman has only run once — in 1994. Cave Spring and Hollins have never had a woman run for school board. In fact, Hollins has never had a contested school board election — ever. Jerry Canada ran unopposed for years and when he retired David Linden ran unopposed. Cave Spring, Windsor Hills and Vinton have rarely had contested elections. Cave Spring has had only two contested school board elections (1995 and 2015). Ditto for Windsor Hills (1994 and 2001). Catawba isn’t simply unusual because it’s had women running; it’s unusual because it’s had more contested elections for school board than uncontested ones. That means the question in Roanoke County is bigger than simply “why have so few women run?” It’s “why have so few people run?” We don’t have an answer to that. Evidently people are happy with the school board members they’ve had. Nonetheless, the fact remains: You can literally count the number of localities with all-male school boards on one hand and Roanoke County is one of them.