• 66°

Story sues School Board

A member of the Suffolk School Board has sued the board, and most of the rest of its members individually, due to what the lawsuit states are repeated violations of the state’s open-meetings laws.

Board member Sherri Story is suing Chair Phyllis Byrum and Vice Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, along with members Karen Jenkins, Lorita Mayo and Tyron Riddick. Story’s attorney, Kevin Martingayle, filed the lawsuit Thursday in Suffolk Circuit Court.

In the petition, Story accuses the five board members of disregarding open-meetings laws. David Mitnick, who often sides with Story, is named only as a “nominal defendant entitled to notice.”

“Because the Suffolk School Board has refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, we are now proceeding with litigation,” Martingayle said Friday in a phone interview. “the affairs of government are not to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy.”

The 12-page complaint lists a number of alleged violations of open-meetings laws by the board. They include:

  • School Board committee members are “meeting” in person and by phone in a manner that constitutes a public meeting subject to FOIA requirements, but without complying with the law.
  • The School Board held an email poll — which Story called a “secret vote” — and voted to exclude Story and Mitnick from joining an April 9 closed meeting remotely. They had sought to do so due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions on in-person gatherings. They later were, indeed, excluded from the meeting.
  • The certifications of closed meetings read by School Board attorney Wendell Waller routinely fail to meet all of the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.
  • On June 11, Mitnick was once again excluded from a closed meeting because he sought to participate remotely. Story objected.
  • The list of topics to be discussed in a closed meeting routinely fails to provide sufficient information to the public or even to all of the School Board members about what will be discussed.
  • Personnel Reports discussed in closed meetings regularly involve general financial decisions, budget discussions and other matters that should be part of open meetings and require public votes.
  • Closed meeting discussions regularly stray beyond the specific topics exempt from open-meeting discussions.
  • Important decisions are made through improper votes or no votes at all.

“She’s doing this because she believes that both the spirit and the letter of the Freedom of Information Act are important,” Martingayle said. “She thinks the public access to information and a well-informed public are critically important to having the best possible school system.”

This is not the first time in Story’s year-and-a-half tenure on the board that she has pushed back with an attorney. She retained Martingayle’s services in 2019 in the wake of disciplinary actions that had been taken against her by the board, and he sent several pieces of correspondence on her behalf, urging the rest of the board to comply with FOIA and cease harassment of Story.

The board had given Story a letter on May 9, 2019, during a closed meeting outlining a handful of instances in which they said she violated the norms and protocols.

Earlier this month, the board took discipline against Story a step further with a public censure. During its June 11 meeting, the board voted 5-2, with Mitnick and Story in opposition, to approve the censure of Story for repeated violations of the board’s norms and protocols — things like posting about school issues on her Facebook page and talking to the news media about school issues.

Martingayle said the court is being asked, in this new action, to declare the School Board has indeed violated the Freedom of Information Act. It’s also being asked to enter an injunction against the School Board committing any further violation of the FOIA, or a writ of mandamus ordering it to follow all the provisions of the Act, or potentially both.

The lawsuit also seeks an award of Story’s attorney’s fees. Potentially getting back the fees and costs she has paid would be the only way Story could benefit monetarily, Martingayle said. Any monetary penalties assessed against the School Board and the five individual members named would go to a state literary fund, by law.

“She’s really risking a lot,” Martingayle said. “She’s paying a lawyer to pursue something, and all she can get back is what she spent in the first place.”

He added, “She’s doing this because she believes the Freedom of Information Act is important, and she’s been pushed into a corner and she’s at her wit’s end.”

Representatives of Suffolk Public Schools were unable to be reached for comment on Friday due to the Juneteenth holiday.