Judge dismisses Clifton parent’s lawsuit accusing school board of violating FOIA law

A Fairfax County judge has dismissed a Clifton parent’s lawsuit that accused the School Board of violating the Virginia Freedom of Information Act while deliberating the closure of Clifton Elementary School last year, the school district said Friday.

Judge Leslie M. Alden found that the School Board and the administration of School Superintendent Jack D. Dale had violated FOIA provisions on open meetings or public disclosure, but she concluded that the violations were too minor to justify reversing the board’s decision.

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The lawsuit, filed by Jill DeMello Hill, accused the board of conducting secret meetings through e-mails and of failing to produce public documents relevant to the decision. Hill claimed that those actions tainted the democratic process enough to warrant overturning the board’s decision in July 2010 to close the school.

But Alden found that the board’s e-mail exchanges about the school did not amount to a secret meeting.

Having already lost a related lawsuit, some parents and community leaders saw Hill’s FOIA case as their last hope to reverse the closure through legal action. Others have focused on trying to launch a charter school or winning seats on the board in this fall’s election.

The board voted July 8, 2010, to close the school, citing problems with the well water, projected enrollment declines, the relatively high per-pupil cost of needed renovations and other factors. The decision stirred anger in what is a mostly rural part of the county where the school was viewed as the heart of the community.

In an eight-page opinion dated Wednesday, Alden said that although board members sent dozens of e-mails to one another debating the merits of closing the school — up to and during the July 8 meeting — the intervals between those e-mails were large enough that the communication was not “virtually simultaneous interaction” that would amount to a secret meeting.

The judge, however, found that the board violated open meetings provisions by allowing one of its members, Patricia S. Reed (Providence), to participate from a remote location by watching as the meeting was live-streamed over the Web and sending e-mails to other members during the proceedings. The judge, who noted that FOIA allows public officials to participate electronically from remote locations with proper public notice, also held that Reed’s involvement was minimal and had no real bearing on the meeting’s outcome.

Calls on Saturday to Reed and the board’s past chairman, Kathy L. Smith (Sully), requesting comment were not immediately returned.

 
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