RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Board of Education agreed to license a controversial candidate for superintendent in Spotsylvania County with no experience in education — and a history of incendiary social media posts — clearing the way for him to assume the vacant position.
A number of speakers called on the board to deny Mark Taylor entry to the state’s list of qualified superintendents, citing his lack of relevant experience and racially charged social media posts. A handful of speakers supported his candidacy, accusing those opposed to his appointment of political bias.
Taylor was the choice of the school board after they abruptly fired the previous superintendent without cause in January, cementing the control of the board’s new conservative majority.
Who is Mark Taylor?
Mark Taylor currently serves as a county manager in Greene County, to the West of Spotsylvania. Prior to that he served in the Spotsylvania County government as their legal counsel. He has never worked in public education nor does he have an academic background in education.
That was a major sticking point for many Spotsylvania educators and parents who spoke at the Virginia Board of Education meeting on Thursday.
“Mr. Taylor has zero experience as an educational administrator,” said Rich Lieberman, a former candidate for the Spotsylvania School Board.
But Lisa Phelps, a current board member who voted to send Taylor as a candidate before the BOE, said that didn’t matter, and the decision should be the county’s alone, “Vote yes and let Spotsylvania County move on to take care of Spotsylvania County.”
Controversy has also swirled around posts made by Taylor on his personal Facebook page. They allegedly include memes mocking trans people and school shootings, racist innuendos and calls for parents to pull their children out of public schools.
Facebook posts, apparently made by Mark Taylor, which were submitted to the Board of Education for consideration Thursday.
“This is the kind of man I would not want my children interacting with at all,” said Julie Young, a parent with two children in Spotsylvania schools. “And I certainly don’t want him in charge of an entire school division.”
In an interview with ABC-affiliate WJLA, Taylor told reporters that he didn’t make the posts — which were made over several months and interspersed with unrelated posts appearing to be from Taylor — and his account may have been hacked.
“I don’t understand how someone attacks or accesses an account, I imagine it’s possible,” he told WJLA.
One speaker at the board meeting derided that explanation.
“Now he implies he was hacked, even though his posts are time-stamped and go back years,” said Rebecca Murray, a retired teacher of 20 years. “Too little, too late, too convenient.”
But Laurie Szymanski, a substitute teacher in the county, said the posts had been dug up as part of a politically-motivated attack on Taylor, “with mob-like luster, fire and smear tactics.”
Taylor also drew support from Spotsylvania resident James Manship, who appeared before the board in colonial garb and claimed at times to speak as the “spirit” of founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The Limit of Local Control
When it came time for the board to weigh approval of Taylor’s licensure as a superintendent, the question hinged on what role the state board should play in determining his uitability.
Virginia law allows local school boards to nominate candidates who do not otherwise have qualifications as an educator to be nominated as superintendent, but still requires the state board’s approval to add them to the list of acceptable candidates.
Clarence Collins, head of the Spotsylvania Education Association, called on the board to use their oversight to block Taylor’s licensure.
“Rome is burning. As educational leaders, this is your balcony moment.,” he said. “You can’t get down in the fray, you must stay above it and make the decision that’s best for our students.”
On the other hand, Roy Surls, a Spotsylvania resident, tied Taylor’s approval to Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the 2021 election.
“Governor Youngkin won Spotsylvania County by a landslide. The four members of our majority also won their election by a landslide,” he said. “The people of Spotsylvania County have spoken.”
Anne Holton, a member of the state board appointed by ex-governor Ralph Northam, said she initially wanted to approve Taylor’s candidacy.
“I started to read the public comments, frankly, wanting to be able to approve the Spotsylvania Board’s recommendation for superintendent,” she said. “I believe strongly in local control.”
But she changed her mind when she saw the Facebook posts allegedly authored by Taylor, which she said included mocking Oprah Winfrey for being fat and Black, disparaging immigrants and calling on parents to remove their children from public schools.
“These are all within the last 18 months. These aren’t, y’know, ‘Oh, I did something when I was a kid.’ These are recent posts,” she said.
But other board members said it was the local board’s responsibility, not the state’s, to vet their candidates.
“Were I on a local board I would consider these Facebook posts a disqualification,” said Youngkin appointee Dr. Alan Seibert. But Seibert added that the responsibility ultimately lay with that local board, not the State Board of Education.
The board ultimately voted to approve Taylor’s inclusion on the list by a vote of 6-2, with Holton and Dr. Tammy Mann opposing.