Ed. — This story appeared in the Friday, Nov. 29, print edition.
BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
VIRGINIA BEACH – Weeks after Election Day, questions remain about the political activities and policy goals of a nonprofit organization that quietly was formed by a Virginia Beach School Board member and then, in announcing itself, made several surprise candidate endorsements.
The Virginia Beach Teachers’ Association was essentially unknown to the public before it erected signs at polls and supporters passed out lists of candidates on Election Day, leading to confusion among some voters and consternation among others — including local educators and a long-established group that represents them in Virginia Beach.
Aside from confirming that the organization is operating as a 501(c)4 “social welfare” group, School Board Member Laura Hughes, who formed the group this summer, has declined to answer questions.
They include whether the group essentially acted as a political action committee without registering with the state. Hughes would not speak with The Independent News following the Tuesday, Nov. 26, School Board meeting. She has told other media outlets the group has about 50 members, including some teachers.
Hughes also has not yet responded to an email sent on Friday, Nov. 8, seeking information nonprofit organizations are expected to provide to the public, such as an application to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. There appears to be little available documentation about the VBTA aside from State Corporation Commission paperwork, and the group does not appear to have a website or social media presence.
VBTA had not filed a statement of organization as a PAC by Tuesday, Nov. 26, according to an email from Andrea Gaines, director of community relations and compliance support for the Virginia Department of Elections. Due to filing requirements for PACs under state law, this could at least let members of the public understand who paid for the VBTA’s political activities and how the group spent that money to influence city voters.
The Independent News reported that certain nonprofits are legally allowed to engage in some political activities, but they also may be required to disclose donors and spending behind such advocacy once they influence local or state elections by endorsing a candidate or multiple candidates.
The Virginia Beach Education Association, an established group that represents city teachers and schools employees, makes endorsements through its own established PAC and discloses those activities to the public.
The Independent News reported that some candidates did not learn about their endorsements from the VBTA until shortly before the election, and they said they had not participated in an endorsement process with the group.
Local election officials received emails and calls about the group. Some concerns were forwarded to the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, which is reviewing a complaint, and state election officials.
Macie Allen, a spokesperson for the Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle, said the office could not comment upon specifics of the complaint about the VBTA’s political activities. That review, which was first reported by The Independent News in its previous edition, remained underway as of Tuesday, Nov. 26, according to Allen.
One of the complaints emailed on Election Day to the city Department of Voter Registration & Elections noted the lack of information about the group online as voters encountered its endorsements at the polls.
On Tuesday, Nov. 26, Holly Edwards addressed concerns about the VBTA amid a public comment session during a School Board meeting. Edwards, the parent of an elementary school student, said the group’s efforts appeared meant to mislead voters.
Some three weeks after the election, she said she had still not heard of a single educator who is a member of the group.
“Where is the transparency that our elected officials claim to support?” Edwards asked.
“From all appearances,” she added, “it’s a sham that was created to deceive voters and to elect preferred candidates of some elected officials.”
Danielle Coughlin, a gifted resource teacher at Thalia Elementary School, said Hughes’ “involvement in starting the VBTA is shameful, misleading, and some of the endorsements fly in the face of public education.”
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