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IW schools agree to boost transparency

Isle of Wight’s School Board has agreed to a legal consent order that ends two civil lawsuits alleging violations of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

The lawsuits, filed in late 2020 by Virginia Beach-based attorney Kevin Martingayle with the firm Bischoff Martingayle on behalf of county resident Katheryn Carter Lemon, accused the board of providing vague or insufficient details to the public regarding decisions to enter closed sessions and communicating the incorrect start time for board meetings.

In a four-point final order filed Jan. 5 with Isle of Wight Circuit Court and approved by Circuit Court Judge Matthew A. Glassman on Jan. 21, the school board acknowledged that its motions to enter closed meetings in October 2020 “were not specific enough for purposes of compliance with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.”

School officials agreed that going forward, personnel reports and matters before the board that require action will be described in more specific detail so that members of the public may be more reasonably informed about the decisions being made. Finally, the board agreed to post full, official versions of meeting minutes “as soon as reasonably possible after the meeting minutes have been approved by the school board.”

In a statement shared with the public by chairwoman Jackie Carr during the board’s Jan. 14 meeting, Carr, on behalf of the board members, denied school officials willfully or knowingly violated FOIA.

“With regard to the pending lawsuit, rather than continuing to engage in litigation, which would unnecessarily consume more time and money — especially during this unprecedented time — we have agreed to resolve the case through a consent order,” Carr said. “The consent order affirms that we will always comply with the requirements set forth in FOIA — again, something that we have always and continue to endeavor to do.”

The purpose of FOIA laws and policies is to ensure everyone has access to public meetings and records.

Carr continued: “I personally want to say that being in this seat is a huge responsibility and one that is not taken lightly. I cringe at the thought of making any kind of mistake, but if we do and when it is discovered, we will always make sure it is corrected and then learn from it and move forward.”

 

Lawsuit background

The first lawsuit was filed in late September. Carr explained that the error in communicating the meeting start time may have originated in early 2016. The board would convene the meeting at 5 p.m., and then announce its intent to enter a closed session. After ending the closed session, the board would reconvene for the rest of the meeting, and then usually vote on issues from the closed portion of the meeting near the end of the session before adjourning.

That’s why the board stated that the open portion of the meetings starts at 6 p.m. — it was an effort to keep people from rushing to the meeting only to sit and wait for an undetermined amount of time for the members to conclude their private deliberations.

“This may have caused the confusion about when the monthly meetings actually begin,” Carr said in her statement. “But, our posting was wrong and it was quickly corrected to clarify our monthly meeting times.”

Soon after agreeing to the order, Carr asked board clerk Tracey Reutt to schedule the five elected members of the board, Superintendent Jim Thornton and Lynn Briggs, the school division’s spokeswoman and FOIA representative, to attend a new first-time training session from the Virginia School Board Association on the Freedom of Information Act.

However, before this training could be completed, the school board was served with a second lawsuit from Lemon regarding FOIA-related concerns.

Going forward, the board’s personnel reports will now be available to the public before the elected body enters closed session “unless doing so would interfere with the hiring of potential, prospective candidates for employment,” Carr said.

In addition, copies of the personnel report will be made available at the same time as the board’s vote on the report. Carr also reminded the public that board meeting agendas are usually posted on the school division’s website about a week before the meeting date.

Documents filed with the court point to Suffolk Public Schools board agendas as an example that provides a level of detail that allows people to better discern who officials might be considering hiring, re-assigning, disciplining or firing before and after emerging from a private meeting to make a public decision.

A Suffolk School Board agenda submitted as a court exhibit identifies people slated for a personnel decision by job title, specific project or their assigned work location, the specific number of people being considered for personnel action and it also identifies the plaintiff and defendants involved in any legal matters before the board.

Isle of Wight’s School Board motions to enter closed session did not typically contain that level of detail.

Carr said school board members, who receive a $5,000 annual salary, spend many hours in meetings, on the phone and answering emails, attend training and read all kinds of reports and articles on a regular basis to stay updated on education-related issues. She said the money isn’t why they’re in public service.

“The dedication and commitment to our school division come from a heart and love for kids and the community that we serve and the deep desire to be a part in seeing that our schools get better and better for our children,” Carr said.