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School Board member hires attorney

Chuckatuck Borough representative believes her outspokenness has made her a target

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series about the School Board. The first story was published Wednesday.

A Suffolk School Board member who has been pushing for open committee meetings believes her concerns have brought her ill treatment by other School Board members.

Sherri Story, the Chuckatuck Borough representative on the board who took office in January, has hired an attorney in the wake of two disciplinary actions against her that she believes were unfair.

“I feel they have targeted me from the beginning,” Story said. “I can’t help feeling there’s been a target on my back.”

Story has spoken out in favor of open committee meetings during her time on the board (see Wednesday’s story). She believes that has made her a target.

The board approved “norms” and protocols to govern board members in their interactions during a meeting on March 14. Story was present at a meeting with the Virginia School Boards Association on Feb. 8 in Charlottesville when the protocols — but not the norms — were discussed, but was absent on March 14 due to a broken wrist. The norms were discussed, and both norms and protocols approved, at that meeting.

Story, however, takes issue with some of the norms and protocols and has disregarded them, which has gotten her into trouble with the rest of the board.

The norms state that the first violation will result in a meeting with the chairperson; the second will result in written admonition delivered in closed session; and the third will result in discussion during a public meeting.

On May 9, during a closed meeting of the School Board, Story was handed a five-page document, signed by the other members of the board, outlining five or six instances in which she had violated the norms and protocols.

Story shared the letter with the Suffolk News-Herald after consulting with her attorney.

The letter states that it is the second violation of the norms and protocols. Story said that she did not realize a meeting with Chairman Phyllis Byrum in late February was her notification of the first violation.

Story acknowledges that one item listed in the letter — when she forgot to state while addressing City Council on Feb. 20 that she was speaking only for herself and not for the entire school board — is an appropriate admonition.

But she disagrees on other points. The norms and protocols state that board members should not use social media, but Story has a Facebook page that states she is a school board member and that she uses to post about education-related topics. In one post, Story uploaded a photo of a dirty vent in a Suffolk school and said she would not want her granddaughter in a school with that hanging over her head.

“In 2018, the School Board expended approximately $500,000.00 in order to mount a successful defense to a claim in which a parent alleged that her child suffered an allergic reaction to mold in one of our school buildings,” the letter of reprimand states. “Comments by a Board Member that school buildings are unhealthy or unsafe, when in fact they are not, may invite frivolous lawsuits against the School Board, individual School Board Members and Suffolk Public Schools.”

The letter continues, “You have no right of Free Speech that allows for misstating facts and attempting to be-little your peers in a public forum.”

The letter also says Story sent a text message to the superintendent about a maintenance problem. She told him she was “wary” of a department head going to the school and “looking for teachers to blame and yell at. This BETTER NOT happen.”

The letter states the text message was inappropriate. “We do not speak to our employees in that way,” it states.

The letter also references a meeting in which Story “grilled” staff members about the audit report rather than give her questions to the superintendent ahead of time, and concerns she had expressed about potential discrimination against two white custodians at a high school.

“Your behavior MUST CHANGE!” the letter concludes.

The norms and protocols suggest that board members who ask for information that will take longer than 60 minutes to research need to have the permission of the entire board to do so — implying that a board member needs the permission of six other people to file Freedom of Information Act requests as other citizens are able to do on their own.

In a May 24 letter, Story’s attorney, Kevin Martingayle of Bischoff Martingayle, wrote that the board’s “concerns, accusations and demands” caused concerns of their own.

“It is concerning that you apparently had an undisclosed meeting in order to discuss, draft and endorse the May 9 letter,” Martingayle wrote.

He noted that it was similar to a 2016 case in which he represented Portsmouth Councilman Bill Moody after Moody had been fined $1,500 over publicly discussing the content of closed sessions.

“A judge determined that members of the Portsmouth City Council violated the open meeting requirements of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act,” Martingayle wrote. “Unless you are able to explain how you complied with FOIA requirements, it would appear that you have made the same mistake.”

Martingayle also urged the School Board to comply with the FOIA with regard to closed sessions in general before moving on to the treatment of Story.

“The demands set forth in your May 9, 2019 letter are unusual and disturbing, and potentially illegal,” Martingayle wrote. “You have failed to cite any legally binding authority for your various demands. … Quite aside from your apparent desire to infringe on free speech rights, your failure to cite any binding laws, ordinances or regulations strongly suggests that no such authority exists. … Please be advised that any further efforts to intimidate Board Member Story and any further violations of FOIA requirements are likely to result in legal action against any and all responsible parties.”

In a response, Waller wrote to Martingayle that there was no meeting to prepare the letter about Story. The letter was prepared by Vice Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck at the direction of Byrum, he wrote.

Waller also wrote that the facts of the Moody case are different, in part because Moody was fined and Story has not been fined.

Martingayle replied in a June 4 letter that he was surprised to see Waller defending individual members of the School Board, rather than representing the board as a whole, and disagreed with Waller’s take on the differences between the two cases.

The letter of reprimand “unquestionably constitutes the product of a group decision and group action, and that, in turn, means there was a vote, whether formal or informal,” Martingayle wrote. “I do not believe that the effort to avoid FOIA requirements will be successful if this dispute results in a court challenge.”

Martingayle also wrote that the norms and protocols have no bearing on any members of the School Board.

“A guidance document with aspirational behavior goals is not the same thing as law,” Martingayle wrote. “Members of the Suffolk City School Board should feel free to communicate in a manner they believe is consistent with the law and their respective obligations, and they should not be seeking to intimidate each other or stifle free speech and expression.”

Aside from the reprimand letter, Story said, she cited several comments she feels were inappropriate that have been directed toward her.

She says one board member told her, “You deliver your ideas as if on a dirty, filthy garbage can cover.” Another told her she “should have a come-to-Jesus moment.”

“Those are the kind of judgmental words that have been used against me,” she said.

Brooks-Buck and board members David Mitnick, Karen Jenkins and Tyron Riddick declined to speak about the treatment of Story. Mitnick stated that he was declining to comment because it was a matter discussed in closed session.

Byrum and member Lorita Mayo did not return messages.

Story said that no matter what happens, she’s not going to quit.

“I have to wonder if it isn’t their goal to get me to quit, and I’m not quitting,” she said. “I came on the board to do hard work and improve our schools and improve morale. I want to work with all the board members, but they have to want to work with me as well.”

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