By Bridget Manley, publisher
As school board elections across the country feature battles over mask mandates, critical race theory and transgender rights, a Rockingham County School Board candidate’s campaign Facebook page serves as a local example of how the internet remains a Wild West for political speech.
Matt Cross, a former Student Resource Officer in Rockingham County Public Schools, is running for Rockingham County School Board in district three. Cross has not responded to multiple interview requests from The Citizen, dating back months.
His Facebook page, Matt Cross for School Board, has been a source of heated debate over the last few months, with many in the community questioning his tactics of “doxing” teachers and parents in the RCPS school system. He also deletes threads that show him in a negative light, and has posted misinformation about curriculum in the county school system.
Cross has used the Freedom of Information Act to request documents about critical race theory and the Virginia Inquiry Collaborative, a group that creates resources for teachers to use as part of the curriculum set forth by the state of Virginia. According to RCPS Superintendent Oskar Scheikl, Cross continued to post misinformation about the district and its curriculum after receiving documents in response to his requests.
FOIA requests and curriculum criticism
In August, Cross used the Freedom of Information Act to request, “any amount of funding, grants, or other forms of monetary amount from Rockingham County Public Schools or Faculty for the Virginia Inquiry Collaborative or IDM Workshops, the names of Faculty in the Rockingham County Public Schools that have participated in the Virginia Inquiry Collaborative or IDM Workshops, any curriculum or lesson plans from the Virginia Inquiry Collaborative or IDM Workshops used in Rockingham County Public Schools,” as well as the names of school administration who work in the social studies program for RCPS.
The Citizen obtained information about Cross’s FOIA requests through a FOIA request of its own.
The Virginia Inquiry Collaborative was started in 2018 by a group of teachers from four school districts in Virginia Beach, Albemarle County, Charlottesville and Fairfax County. The goal was to create resources that teachers could have access to help teach the official state curriculum.
The group worked with the Smithsonian, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, and other museums and historical sites to gather information about various perspectives on state history. Teachers who attend the collaborative’s workshops can create inquiries and post them to GoOpenVA, a website that shares openly-licensed digital resources with other teachers across the state.
RCPS was not involved in the collaborative when it began, but took part in workshops this past summer, said Oskar Scheikl, the superintendent. Following the workshops, RCPS teachers submitted two inquiries for other teachers to use: one on Kurdish Independence and one on the role of women in South American politics.
“Curriculum is approved by the state, it’s adopted locally,” Scheikl said. “We don’t just adopt VIC curriculum.”
As county school board meetings grew more contentious over the summer, Cross raised questions about RCPS’s participation in the VIC. Scheikl told The Citizen that he tried during those meetings to answer the questions raised about their cooperation in the VIC as thoroughly as he could.
“It seems like the answer I gave didn’t quite fit the allegation that was made,” Scheikl said. “So the FOIA requests came, I believe, to see if there was documentation that would show that what I said was not true.”
After Cross’s FOIA requests were fulfilled, Scheikl thought that the documents would corroborate what he’d said in meetings about RCPS’s involvement with the VIC.
However, Cross repeated misinformation on Facebook after he received response to his FOIA requests from RCPS on Sept. 10 and 13.
In a Sept. 15 Facebook post, Cross continued to allege that RCPS had built the VIC curriculum from the start.
Cross wrote, “The VIC is a collaboration from 7 school divisions on creating history curriculum that’s anti-racist and RCPS has led the way in building this curriculum with school divisions like Fairfax County, Virginia Beach, Albemarle County, and Charlottesville City.”
In the same post, he continued, “RCPS has been apart (SIC) of building this curriculum from the beginning and has used County tax payer money to pay staff in doing so. The last payment we paid for the curriculum building was from July of this year.”
Scheikl acknowledged Cross’s right to use FOIA, and said the district has nothing to hide..
“That’s fair enough – fact check the superintendent, and then see what documents are there,” Scheikl said. “It shows, obviously, a level of distrust, but that’s just how it works. I don’t have a problem with it. What gets a little bit tricky is if what is found in the FOIA request is still not enough to say, ‘oh, yeah, they were only part of it for one year,’ and someone doubles down on the allegation, when the FOIA request really cleared that up.”
Candidate FOIAs teacher emails, and references to self
In September, Cross also FOIA requested “all Rockingham County Public Schools emails containing the words, “Matthew Cross”, “Matt Cross”, “Candidate Cross”, or “Deputy Cross”. Date range of request is from February 1, 2021 – September 14, 2021.”
He also requested “all emails sent from Oskar Scheikl to Beau Dickenson, and all emails sent from Beau Dickenson to Oskar Scheikl. Date range January 1, 2021- September 14, 2021.”
Dickenson is the K-12 social studies supervisor for the district.
Any emails that contained Cross’s name were provided to him, in response to his FOIA request, along with the emails sent by current and former RCPS staff that he requested.
Teachers and other current and former RCPS employees received emails from administration officials telling them that their communications had been part of a FOIA request, in keeping with division policy to provide courtesy notification when staff emails are released.
Cross has also posted emails to his campaign page in the past from teachers asking for books about diversity.
In a now-deleted Facebook post from April 2021, Cross included a Facebook post from an RCPS teacher who asked for books about diversity in her classroom. Cross included the details of the request, the teacher’s last name and her position.
Deleting critical posts
Cross has also been accused of deleting threads and comments from parents and community members who have criticized him on Facebook. One involves a parent whose child had a run-in with Cross while Cross was an SRO.
Leslie Ritchie Miller, a parent who works in the Rockingham County School System, told The Citizen that her son was a student at Montevideo Middle School during the 2013-14 school year.
Her son, who has autism, became overwhelmed in the classroom and left the building. Cross was called in to help bring the student back inside. Miller says that Cross verbally threatened to bring her son back inside, and that she later called Cross to express her anger about it.
This year, she shared her recollections of the incident on Cross’s school board page.
“I felt the need to share my story regarding what had happened with my son,” Miller said. “I posted on his official campaign page about the incident, in hopes that people would see that his character is questionable, particularly when dealing with special needs children.”
She and Cross had a heated exchange, with Cross saying he could “tell everything” about her son, but deciding, “I’m not going to stoop so low, Leslie.”
The thread was later deleted.
“I feel that he threatened my son twice,” Miller said. “Once in person, and once on social media. And that is absolutely unacceptable behavior for any candidate running for a school board position who is supposed to protect and advocate for students, faculty and family members.”
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