In an unprecedented move by Clifton community activists, the Fairfax County School Board (FCSB) is being sued in relation to the closure of Clifton Elementary. In July, the FCSB voted to close Clifton Elementary School (CES), despite a huge outcry by the Clifton community and no compelling reason for closure. The lawsuit, delivered to the Fairfax County Circuit Court on Friday focuses its attention on the way the School Board decided to close Clifton Elementary, and charges that the FCSB violated numerous laws including the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA) by conducting ‘meetings’ in secrecy and depriving the public of an open meeting where the debate could have been observed.
Virginia law mandates that actions taken by government bodies “are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government”. The lawsuit charges that the School Board violated Virginia law by communicating with each other “in secret” regarding the closure of Clifton Elementary.
In addition to violating Virginia law, the School Board also violated its own policies and procedures as outlined in their Strategic Governance Manual. The manual states clearly that, “All gatherings of School Board members when sitting as a body or an entity, or as an informal assemblage of three or more, are ‘meetings’ under Virginia law… With the exception of closed meetings called pursuant to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, all meetings should be open to the public and held in a location accessible to the public.” Additionally, the School Board’s protocol is for members to, “communicate openly and actively in discussion…at public meetings.” Clearly, this did not happen.
One of the more explosive charges mentioned in the 145 legal petition is that while the School Board had voiced concern about the quality of the water at CES, Dean Tilstad, COO for Facilities emailed a report to School Board members in which they were informed that there was no problem with the water at CES, and therefore no money needed to be allocated. According to the petition, the School Board intentionally withheld the contents of this report until after they voted to close Clifton, thus depriving the public of vital information, which had been one of “reasons” cited for considering the closure of CES.
The lawsuit, which was delivered to the Fairfax County Circuit Court on Friday is an explosive read, and if the allegations are true, the School Board should be ashamed. They showed flagrant disregard for the laws governing open meetings, and denied the public the ability to monitor the discussion regarding the closure of one of the best elementary schools in the country. In a decision as important as closing a school that serves as the center of a community, the School Board showed little interest in ensuring they followed established procedures.
With 2011 fast approaching, and the entire Fairfax County School Board up for re-election, this is certain to become a campaign issue. Of course, the Clifton closure will be the biggest headache for Liz Bradsher, who not only voted for the closure, but made the motion to proceed with the vote! It is important to note that before the vote, one member of the School Board asked other members to give a “compelling case for the closure of Clifton Elementary,” and no one, not even Springfield District Representative Liz Bradsher provided an answer to that question.
It is important to note that School Board members Patty Reed, Tina Hone, Sandy Evans, Jim Raney and Ilryong Moon all voted AGAINST the closure of Clifton Elementary School. Clifton parents should be commended for standing up to this ridiculous decision by the School Board that shows how out of touch many of the members are.
Pursuant to Virginia law, the Court is required to hear FOIA cases in seven days and the Fairfax County School Board is obligated to prove to the Court that it complied with VFOIA.