Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers is calling on Superintendent Steve Walts to resign, charging that Walts misled the school board about the severity of a car accident he was involved in last summer.
Sawyers emailed Walts and the rest of his colleagues on the board on Feb. 16 to demand the superintendent’s resignation, and he threatened to pursue Walts’ firing for cause if the superintendent didn’t comply with that request.
Sawyers and Walts have tangled repeatedly over the past few months as Sawyers has fought for access to certain emails from his predecessor, but Sawyers’ latest accusations center around Walts’ handling of an August car wreck while he was driving his school division-issued vehicle.
Although Walts alerted the board about the incident at the time, Sawyers says he has recently discovered troubling evidence that the superintendent wasn’t forthcoming about the division’s legal liability for the incident.
"He lied to us,” Sawyers said in an interview. “We can pay someone a lot less, who will actually tell us the truth...How can I trust any future information from him that makes the school division and administration look great when he may not be providing the other side of the story?”
Diana Gulotta, a school division spokeswoman, wrote in an email that Walts is currently away for “previously scheduled professional development” and is “unable to address recent and unfounded allegations personally.”
She did say that Walts is adamant that he thoroughly informed the school board and the school division’s insurance company about the accident. She added that Walts was “deeply concerned about the condition of the other driver” involved in the crash, although two witnesses at the scene, Chris Wahlberg and Elise Amato, describe Walts as indifferent immediately following the incident.
Sawyers is pressing for more information on the accident and is asking the school board to pay for one of his Freedom of Information Act requests, to the tune of about $100. The board is set to debate the issue at its Feb. 21 meeting.
The division has already released some emails and documents to Sawyers through one of his public records requests. Sawyers provided those documents to InsideNoVa, and they shed more light on the accident, and how the school division responded.
Sawyers remembers first hearing about the accident when Deputy Superintendent Keith Imon informed him and school board Vice Chair Lillie Jessie, of the Occoquan District, that Walts would be unable to join a planned conference call on Aug. 25 because he’d been involved in a minor accident.
“After that, I never thought about it again,” said Sawyers, who is also running for Congress as a Democrat against Rep. Rob Wittman, R-1st District.
Board member Willie Deutsch, of the Coles District, said the rest of the board was informed soon afterward about the accident. He remembers asking a few follow-up questions, but said he generally came away from the incident thinking nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Sawyers said he was shopping in late December when he was approached by an acquaintance, Chris Wahlberg, who saw the wreck. The pair’s sons played on the same Little League baseball team and Wahlberg knew Sawyers served on the board. He pulled the chairman aside to say he was “irate” about what he’d seen.
Wahlberg is general manager of the Auto Connection car dealership near the intersection of Va. 28 and Carriage Lane, and, he said in an interview, both he and his employees saw portions of the incident. A Manassas police report confirms the crash location, recording it as occurring around 10 a.m. Aug. 25.
“He [Walts] was going northbound on Centreville Road, and he just smashes right into this poor guy coming southbound on a moped as he was turning,” Wahlberg said.
Elise Amato, a salesperson at the dealership, recalled seeing the same thing in an interview — she was outside smoking at the time and saw the entire incident. The police report describes Walts as making a left turn onto Carriage Lane when he collided with the moped, driven by a man identified by police as 55-year-old Maurice Jermaine Wiggins.
The report says Wiggins was subsequently flown to Inova Fairfax Hospital by helicopter. Walts told police in a statement at the scene that he only saw Wiggins “an instant prior” to turning, according to the documents released through Sawyers’ public records request.
Police recorded that neither driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time. Walts’ 2006 Ford Crown Victoria SUV (which is owned by the school division) sustained about $1,500 in damages, while Wiggins’ moped was totaled, the report states.
Police charged Walts with one count of reckless driving.
Wahlberg and Amato remember being concerned about how Walts acted in the aftermath of the incident. Both recall that Walts’ daughter was in his car, and Amato said she took her into the dealership to help her calm down.
Meanwhile, Walts was on the phone the whole time, they say, and even moved his car before police arrived (over Wahlberg and Amato’s objections).
“He wasn’t upset at all,” Amato said. “He seemed real calm; he just got on the phone. He didn’t seem bothered by the fact that he hit the guy.”
Wahlberg and Amato say Wiggins appeared seriously hurt at the time. However, Manassas police spokesman Officer Charles Sharp said Wiggins’ injuries were “non-life threatening,” and Gulotta said the school division subsequently confirmed that Wiggins was released from the hospital the same day as the accident.
Soon after Wiggins was taken to the hospital, three other people arrived on the scene, claiming they worked for the school board. Until that happened, Wahlberg and Amato said they had no idea who Walts was.
Because Amato witnessed the incident from start to finish, the school board employees interviewed her about the incident and took a statement (the text of which is included in a response to one of Sawyers’ public records requests). Amato subsequently identified one person she spoke with as Alyson Satterwhite, a board member for the Gainesville District, after Sawyers encouraged her to examine the school board’s website to see if anyone seemed familiar.
But Satterwhite vehemently denies that she was at the scene of the accident, noting she was driving her son to Radford University that day. She told the board as much in an email last month, even providing receipts from her trip to back up her claims. Sawyers maintains that the issue merits additional scrutiny, but Satterwhite is perplexed that she’s been drawn into the debate.
“I find it absolutely fascinating that he’d continue to bring this up,” Satterwhite said. “It’s puzzling.”
Sawyers pushes for information
Sawyers said the whole description of the incident so thoroughly disturbed him that he started searching for answers. He discovered that Walts pleaded not guilty to the charge in a trial in Prince William County District Court on Dec. 7. A judge found him guilty of an amended charge of failure to keep under control and fined him $100.
Sawyers wrote an email on Jan. 1 to Walts and Satterwhite demanding more answers. Walts replied, assuring Sawyers that he had properly informed the school board and that he paid for his own legal counsel regarding the incident.
That did little to placate Sawyers, who responded by requesting more information on the incident under the Freedom of Information Act. He is particularly concerned that Walts and school division counsel Mary McGowan didn’t inform the board that the division might be subject to a lawsuit as a result of the accident.
“We’re informed all the time when people threaten to sue us, or could sue us,” Sawyers said. “We need to know that, so if they reach out to us, we can refer them to legal counsel. That never happened. He walked around for months without telling us.”
Documents released to Sawyers through his FOIA request show that on Sept. 14, personal injury attorney Brandon Gladstone sent a letter on behalf of Wiggins to Prince William County attorney Michelle Robl. Gladstone wrote that Wiggins intended to pursue legal action against Walts and the school division after suffering injuries to “his knees, back and hips.”
County court records don’t show any case from Wiggins pending against Walts, and Gladstone didn’t return a request for comment.
“Since the accident, the division’s insurer has handled all communications related to the accident and the other driver’s injuries, as is customary and required by the division’s liability policy,” Gulotta wrote.
Sawyers is incensed that Walts would not bring these issues to the board, nonetheless.
“I wouldn’t have known about any of this unless I’d run into this acquaintance of mine,” Sawyers said.
The chairman is also upset by how McGowan, the division attorney, handled the matter. He’s also briefly tangled with her in court, alleging she improperly withheld his access to legal advice distributed to other board members, and he is disturbed by emails released through his FOIA request showing that McGowan communicated with Walts about his hearing on the reckless driving charge.
He believes her involvement in the case amounts to a misuse of public funds, and he said he plans to speak with county prosecutors about investigating her conduct. “I look forward to the debate over this at our next board meeting,” Sawyers said.
For the chairman's frequent sparring partners on the board, however, the debate amounts to yet another distraction from more pressing business before the board.
"The rogue chairman continues his unilateral reign of terror on school staff," Deutsch wrote in an email. "It is time for this board to focus on kids, not Chairman Sawyers' ego and political ambitions."