Editorial – High court sends strong message to School Board

Published 5:36 pm Friday, April 28, 2023

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Perhaps a unanimous ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court will get the attention of the Suffolk School Board and Superintendent John Gordon III.

Let the record show once and for all that the rights of citizens to observe their government in action is not limited to friends of the elected and appointed officials conducting the public’s business. It applies to your “enemies” as well.

The state’s high court has ruled unanimously in upholding a circuit judge’s ruling that the School Board violated the Virginia Freedom of Information Act in 2021 by prohibiting Deborah Wahlstrom from attending a strategic planning and training retreat. 

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After Wahlstrom was told she’d have to watch the meeting remotely by video feed and she correctly asserted her right to be present, Gordon declared her “an enemy of the school division” and had police escort her from the premises.

The board’s and Gordon’s fundamental ignorance of FOIA law, and pride that prevented them from acknowledging their mistakes, has cost taxpayers dearly during a time when public education needs all of the financial resources it can get. 

“As the trial court found, it was not room size, logistics or COVID precautions that prevented Wahlstrom from attending the meeting in person in the meeting room; it was the fact that, prior to the meeting, the Board decided to deny the public free entry to the meeting room,” Justice Wesley G. Russell Jr. wrote. “Thus, the Board violated VFOIA.”

The case made it to the high court because the School Board refused to accept the decision of Circuit Judge Matthew A. Glassman that it had violated Wahlstrom’s rights and owed her $20,000 to cover her legal expenses.

In addition to a victory for transparency in local government, the court’s decision should be a lesson for school officials that nothing is gained by declaring your critics to be your enemies.

The School Board and Gordon waste way too much emotional energy on ascribing sinister motives to those who criticize or question their actions.

The Freedom of Information Act contains no litmus test for the motives of anyone seeking information about their government. The School Board must embrace transparency, lest it further erode a breakdown of trust with the citizenry it serves.