Tuesday, December 6

Ohio District’s First Out School Board Member: “LGBTQ+ Students Have a Friend in Me.”

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When David Donofrio became the first openly gay man to sit on the board of Franklin County’s South-Western City School District in 2018 – the same year he married his husband Ryan – he remembered the community that helped him reach this milestone.

“I’m so appreciative for organizations like the Stonewall Democrats of Central Ohio and the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, which took a chance on me early on and gave me a lot of the skills that led me to where I am today,” Donofrio says. “We all have to realize we are standing on the shoulders of many people who have come before us.

Donofrio, who also works for a local fire department, demonstrated that same community-mindedness in his first term on the school board, developing a partnership with a local food bank to provide thousands of high quality hot meals to at-need students in the district, the state’s fifth largest. A fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ students and staff, he also led a successful effort to update antiquated language on gender identity in district policy. Now up for reelection – and just endorsed by The Victory Fund – he hopes to keep working toward a more inclusive district.

The Buckeye Flame spoke with David Donofrio about his leap into politics, the lessons of his first term, and the plans he hopes to pursue if reelected.

Tell us about your journey into politics. What inspired you to get involved?
My mom is a family law attorney with Legal Aid Society of Columbus, and she instilled in me from a very early age a desire to give back to the community. I got a degree in political science from Wittenberg University, and my first job out of college was as an LSC fellow for the Ohio House of Representatives. That sparked the desire to get involved in public service even more, and as a product of central Ohio public schools, which have been instrumental in making me who I am, I wanted to give back to my community through the schools, making sure all children can get the best access to a good quality public education.

What has been your biggest accomplishment as a member of the school board so far?
In my first year, we were revising some district policies, and I noticed that the language pertaining to gender identity was not up to current parlance, and therefore could be not inclusive. I reached out to our deputy superintendent and said, do you mind if we reword that? He had no problem, and the revision passed in a unanimous vote with the already-decided policy changes. But it goes to show how these issues can fly under the radar, and not because there’s opposition to it.

It just wasn’t as obvious to the other board members that this language could be problematic?
They thought that the current language and this new language were synonyms and they are not. While to them it may not seem like a meaningful difference, to someone in our district – one of our LGBTQ+ students or staff members – it could very well make a difference.

I’m also very proud of the partnership I put together with the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. We found that a lot of our students, while they have access to breakfast and lunch foods, often do not have a hot meal to come home to. So we put together this partnership, and it provides literally thousands of hot meals to students. In our district – which does have a pretty significant financial need – almost every building ended up qualifying for that program. Making sure our students have that basic need met so that they are then able to learn and be effective inside and outside the classroom has been a major priority for me.

What a huge impact that program must be having! If reelected, what will your main objectives be for your second term on the board?
Something I’ve been working on is getting rid of pay-to-participate fees, which pose a financial hardship to a number of families in our district and could pose a barrier to a student who wants to be, say, in the marching band or on the football team. Also, I report on facilities development and we are currently in the process of rebuilding four of our middle schools and putting an addition on the fifth. These buildings are set to open in Fall 2022, and I want to make sure that we keep our promise to taxpayers to open them on time and on budget and that they provide our students the highest quality, state-of-the-art resources.

What does it mean to you to be out and in public office?
I am the first openly LGBTQ+ elected member and youngest elected member of our school board, which gives me a very different perspective. One of the things I do every year is go to at least one [Gay Straight Alliance] meeting at each of our four high schools. I really want to hear from students and staff to make sure that our buildings are being as inclusive as they can be, and I don’t want anyone to sugarcoat it. I want them to know that they have a friend in me; they can come to me at any time and be completely honest and transparent about what they are going through, and I will see what I can do to help. My feeling is that when you bring a new perspective into the room, you should be mindful of how can you best represent that perspective, and make sure that when you do one day leave that room, that perspective, whether there is a physical person there or not, continues to be a part of the conversation. 🔥

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Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, OH.

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