Va. Supreme Court rules Fairfax school board e-mails did not break state law

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday that members of the Fairfax County School Board did not break state law when they exchanged hundreds of e-mails prior to a controversial 2010 vote to close Clifton Elementary School.

The opinion, written by Senior Justice Lawrence L. Koontz, upheld a lower court’s ruling and affirmed a long-standing interpretation of how elected officials may and may not use e-mail to discuss public business.

Plaintiff Jill DeMello Hill, a Clifton parent who hoped to force a new vote on the school’s closure, had argued that board members’ e-mails constituted secret meetings that violated Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

A meeting — defined in the law to include any “informal assemblage” of three or more members of an elected body — must be formally announced and open to the public.

School Board members had been careful to avoid creating an “informal assemblage” as they considered whether to close Clifton Elementary. They limited themselves almost exclusively to one-on-one discussions, whether in person, on the phone or through e-mail.

But they had many such one-on-one discussions, one after another. Sometimes, a board member forwarded
e-mail chains to colleagues — sharing one-on-one discussions with a larger group.

Hill contended that the sheer volume of e-mails sent over two days — and the fact that at least one board member, James L. Raney (At Large), appeared to change his mind during those two days — constituted illegal conversation and cajoling by board members.

The Supreme Court disagreed. Broadcasting information to many board members at once, “whether directly, by carbon copy, or by forwarding,” was akin to sending an office memorandum, Koontz wrote.

The e-mails had not generated group conversation, he added, and lacked the “simultaneity” that legal precedent has established as the defining quality of an e-mail meeting.

The Supreme Court also upheld the lower court’s decision not to grant Hill’s request for reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and other costs.

Fairfax schools spokesman John Torre said in an e-mail that the school system was “pleased” with the court’s ruling. Hill could not be immediately reached for comment

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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