A Prince William County judge has blocked school board Chairman Ryan Sawyers’ attempt to get access to his predecessor’s email correspondence, tossing Sawyers’ legal action against Superintendent Steve Walts out of court.
Circuit Court Judge Steven Smith granted Walts’ motion to dismiss the chairman’s case in a hearing Tuesday, ruling that Sawyers doesn’t have the right to access archived emails from former Chairman Milton Johns and other board members without the full board’s permission.
Sawyers first asked Walts for access to Johns’ old emails in late April, but the superintendent rebuffed that request, arguing that the correspondence contained an array of information protected under state and federal privacy laws. Sawyers followed that up with a “petition for a writ of mandamus” in late May, aimed at compelling Walts to turn over the emails, but Smith disagreed with the chairman’s arguments that he has a right to “unfettered access” to the documents in question.
“In my mind, the law is clear that an individual board member can’t go off rogue, and go out on their own to ask for this,” Smith said.
Sawyers, who is also running for Congress as a Democrat in 2018, said he will likely appeal the ruling, though he still needs to consult with his lawyers.
Stephen Cochran, an attorney for Sawyers, argued that it would be “absurd” not to allow the chairman access to the “institutional memory” of the school board, as constituted by these emails. Sawyers has argued that he wants access to the correspondence to better understand how county classrooms got so overcrowded over the years, and guide his future policy choices — Johns, who was backed by county Republicans, retired as chairman ahead of the 2015 elections, clearing the way for Sawyers to win the seat.
“How else will the board learn from its past mistakes?” Cochran said. “Any member not only should have but needs to have access to these records.”
Yet Walts has remained adamant during this whole debate that Sawyers could simply file a public records request for these emails if he needs to see them, or ask the board to take a vote giving him access, but can’t simply search through the emails as he sees fit.
Craig Wood, an attorney for Walts, argued that Sawyers’ request amounted to a “massive fishing expedition.” Other board members have made similar claims in the past, pointing out that Johns is currently a partner in a law firm representing Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop, who is suing Sawyers in an unrelated defamation case.
But Sawyers has repeatedly stressed that he doesn’t believe Johns has anything to do with that case, and Wood even stressed that Sawyers’ “motive doesn’t matter” when examining the issue.
“The notion that the superintendent would hand over any information ever given to a board member incredibly violates privacy laws,” Wood said. “The superintendent is in the worst possible position...You’ve got to appreciate that he doesn’t want to be here in court contesting his school board chairman. But he’s trying to do his job and protect these privacy rights.”
Wood also argued that Virginia law doesn’t grant Sawyers any express powers as chairman to request these emails, alleging that only the full board has rights when acting as a “corporate body” and that individual board members don’t have powers themselves.
Cochran shot back that these emails belong to the board itself, not Walts, and the superintendent is standing in the way of the chairman’s rights as part of the board.
Yet Smith dismissed those claims, acting quickly to grant Walts’ motion and dismissing the case.
“The board can give an individual member that power if it wants to go in that direction, and then the superintendent could file a new petition if he feels it violates these privacy laws,” Smith said.
But even with this case dismissed, Sawyers still has a similar legal challenge pending in circuit court against the school division’s top lawyer, Mary McGowan.
He claims McGowan is unjustly denying him access to emails containing legal advice that she has sent to other board members, and she is also pushing to have the case dismissed using similar arguments as the ones Wood employed. No hearing is currently scheduled on the dispute.