Board votes to appeal FOIA decision

Published 6:13 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2020

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The Suffolk School Board has voted to appeal a Circuit Court decision that it and some of its members violated the Freedom of Information Act.

During its Sept. 10 meeting, the board voted 5-1 to appeal the verdict, with Sherri Story, who sued the board accusing it of multiple FOIA violations, the lone no vote. Board Chairwoman Phyllis Byrum was absent due to an illness in her family.

The vote ratified the notice of appeal filed with Suffolk Circuit Court and authorized the law firm of Sullivan Collins Law Group “to take all necessary steps to prosecute an appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.”

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Following a four-day trial in Suffolk Circuit Court in July, Judge Carl Eason Jr. ruled that the board and the majority of its members violated FOIA with regard to meeting notices, vague closed meeting notices and certifications of closed meetings.

Eason ruled that the board — including Byrum, Vice Chairwoman Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck, Lorita Mayo, Tyron Riddick and Karen Jenkins, who were all named as defendants in the lawsuit — did not provide proper notice of meetings and ruled that the motions going into closed meetings were too vague and that certifications of closed meetings were “not sufficient.” They were ordered to read FOIA in its entirety and complete FOIA training, which they have done.

Eason later ordered the board in an Aug. 10 hearing to pay Story just over $25,000 in attorney’s fees and other costs. A final order in the case was filed on that date, and attorneys for the board have 90 days from that date to file a petition for appeal.

Board member David Mitnick was also named in Story’s suit, but only as a nominal defendant entitled to notice.

Responding to a question from Story, Board attorney Wendell Waller said the notice of appeal — something he said was talked about as the case was going on — was filed as a means to preserve the Board’s right to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court. He said the board had 30 days to file the notice of appeal to the city’s Circuit Court, or else “the Board would actually lose out, because (Sept. 11) would be beyond the 30 day period in which to preserve the right to appeal, so it’s a two-step process.”

Waller said there is no cost to the school division or a deductible for the case or the appeal because it is covered by its insurance carrier.

“All of the costs for the legal fees is paid by VRSA (Virginia Risk Sharing Association),” Waller said.

Waller said the policy limit is $1 million per occurrence.

Board member Tyron Riddick said, as a named defendant in the case, that he did not feel comfortable discussing the case during the open Board meeting.

“I don’t see how that would not be, in any way, a conflict of interest,” Riddick said.

At that point, Mayo called for the question, and the Board voted.

Brooks-Buck later thanked Waller for clarifying information about the case.

“It is unfortunate to me when there are rumors, whether they’re on purpose, whether they’re just from people who are misinformed, or whatever — the school system is not taking dollars from anyone to cover our appeal,” Brooks-Buck said. “So, to stop the misinformation, the misleading stories, the falsehoods, the tales, the tall tales, small tales or whatever kind of tales, we’re not spending any instructional dollars. I hope you’re listening very carefully. We have insurance to cover those things, and the appeal will be covered by that. So wherever you see information that is not true, please stop it where it is because it is just not right to tell blatant stories, and they need to be stopped.”