A judge ruled yesterday that the Fairfax County School Board violated the spirit of Virginia's open meeting law, but said the violation was not serious enough for the court order the board to reopen an elementary school.
Fairfax Circuit Judge Barnard F. Jennings rejected arguments by parents from the Wilton Woods area of the county that their school should not be closed because the school board acted improperly when it voted to close it and six other elementary schools last spring.
Testimony at yesterday's trial established that the school board did meet without public notice on the evening of Feb. 21 in a corner of the Cooper Intermediate School cafeteria in McLean following an annual principal's dinner.
What happened at that meeting was a matter of dispute.
School officials claimed the purpose of the meeting was to make routine announcements and distribute several pieces of mail -- including a letter from a Wilton Woods parent protesting the school closing process. Evidence showed that no formal motion was made to convene the meeting and no minutes were taken. School Superintendent L. Linton Deck testified that the meeting lasted from 40 to 45 minutes.
School board attorney Thomas J. Cawley noted that if the judge found that the Freedom of Information Act had been violated, any actions taken at the meeting would be nullified. But, he said, "no one has shown that anything happened so no subsequent action taken by the board is affected."
Wiltin Woods parents maintain that the board conducted the secret meeting solely to discuss the school closing issue. They argued that the board, in effect, put on a show of discussing the matter at a public meeting one week later.
"Mr. Cawley says the public got a full hearing on Feb. 28 but the truth is, the decision was already made at a secret meeting," charged Wilton Woods' attorney, Michael Henke. "That (public meeting) was merely a sham."
In addition to accusing the board of meeting secretly, the parents argued that the board violated its own rules and regulations when it failed to include three other elementary schools in the school closing study.
The judge ruled in favor of the board on the count and only mildly chastised school officials for holding a secret meeting.
"I doubt and question the wisdom of the school board," said Jennings. "The meeting does at least violate the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act."
After the verdict, the board member Anthony T. Lane admitted that informal meetings frequently are held.
"After those dinner meetings, we frequently decide to get together to set up agendas for upcoming meetings, things like that," Lane said. "We never take a vote and no motions are ever made."
Lane said the board probably would be "more careful" about such meetings in the future.
Wilton Woods attorney Henke said following yesterday's court session, "I think it's unfortunate that the courts are so deferential to establish government authority."
One parent, Jill Long told reporters the verdict was frightening. "It's kind of scary that the school board has a much freedom as it does," she said.
School board chairman Ann P. Kahn, who was present for the trial but did not testify, said she was delighted with the outcome. "It just wasn't what you think of as a secret meeting," said Kahn. "I'm very pleased with the verdict."