Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers didn’t attend the board’s first meeting after he called for Superintendent Steve Walts’ resignation, yet Sawyers was very much the focus of the gathering anyway.
The board seemed set for a showdown at its Feb. 21 meeting over part of Sawyers’ dispute with the superintendent, which stems from Walts’ handling of the aftermath of a car wreck he was involved in last August. But when Sawyers realized he couldn’t attend, he decided to delay the consideration of an agenda item that could have prompted an open debate on the chairman’s calls for Walts to step down.
Nevertheless, the friction between Sawyers and Walts cast a pall over the proceedings, with some board members even leading an unsuccessful push to strip the chairman of some of his power to set board meeting agendas. The five-hour-long gathering often turned heated, with even some of Sawyers’ political allies taking shots at his leadership.
“The question becomes: Do we follow somebody who’s walking off the cliff constantly?” said board member Diane Raulston of the Neabsco District, who (like Sawyers) ran for office with the endorsement of county Democrats. “If this is what we’re going to do, constantly, then this next year and a half can’t go fast enough.”
Sawyers, however, is unperturbed by what transpired at the meeting. In an interview Feb. 22, he chalked up criticisms of his attacks on Walts to “grandstanding,” falling back on his long-held belief that Republican-backed members of the board are merely working to undermine his tenure as chairman.
“I heard the meeting was kind of a mess, and that just shows the craziness I’m trying to keep under wraps during every single meeting I’m there,” Sawyers said.
Sawyers’ chief argument against Walts is that the superintendent misled the board about the severity of a crash that occurred when he was driving his school division-issued vehicle. Manassas police charged Walts with reckless driving, after, they say, he struck a man on a moped while turning left on Va. 28 through the city. Walts was ultimately sentenced on a lesser charge and paid a fine. Sawyers claims that Walts wasn’t fully forthcoming about those details or about the division’s potential legal liability from the accident, charges the superintendent fiercely disputes.
The board didn’t dive into the details of Sawyers’ allegations during the meeting, but plenty of members sharply criticized how the chairman chose to air these grievances. Sawyers sent an email to Walts and the full board demanding the superintendent’s resignation on Feb. 16, revealing that decision in an interview with InsideNoVa shortly afterward, a process that irked Vice Chair Lillie Jessie of the Occoquan District.
“If I want you fired, you will hear it from me, before you hear it in the newspaper,” Jessie, who also ran with support from county Democrats, told Walts. “I don’t like what happened in the newspaper, but I think all of us have to be careful...It’s almost like vigilantism against the chair tonight.”
Indeed, for all her frustration with Sawyers’ conduct, Jessie still resisted a push to change board policy and revoke some of the chairman’s ability to control the board’s agenda.
The board voted in October 2016 to give the chair and vice chair the ability to approve proposed discussion items for meetings. Previously, any member could add an item to the agenda, provided they gave the chair and vice chair enough notice, a process some board members were hoping to restore Wednesday night.
“I don’t care who the chairman is, I believe in decentralized power,” said Willie Deutsch of Coles District, who ran with the backing of county Republicans. “I believe members of the board should have equal powers and equal voices. Everybody should have an equal place at the table.”
Deutsch successfully led a vote to add the matter for discussion on the night’s agenda, and he gained vocal support from Alyson Satterwhite of the Gainesville District and Gil Trenum of the Brentsville District, his fellow Republican-backed members of the board. All three argued they’ve repeatedly tried to get items on the agenda in advance, only to be rebuffed by Sawyers.
“This doesn’t discriminate by party, it allows everybody to put an item on the agenda,” Satterwhite said.
Jessie pushed back on those claims, noting that she has never heard about such disputes, even though she is a key part of the agenda-setting process. Sawyers agreed with that assessment, calling it mere “faux outrage” by the other members.
“They haven’t brought forth any serious agenda items for consideration,” Sawyers said. “They’ve only pinched their nose, held their breath and stomped their feet. They’re acting like petulant children.”
Loree Williams of the Woodbridge District, who was backed by Democrats, added that she remembers having her own problems getting items added to the agenda before the policy was changed. Like Jessie, she saw Deutsch’s effort as an attack on Sawyers more than any serious policy matter.
“If you have a problem with him, that’s the elephant in the room, but this is not the way to deal with it,” Williams said.
Deutsch’s proposed policy change earned a 4-3 vote, as he was joined by Raulston, Trenum and Satterwhite. But parliamentary procedure required a two-thirds majority of board members present for it to pass, so his effort failed.
Even so, Jessie pledged to help mediate any agenda disputes in the future, a promise Trenum said he expected her to honor.
Even with that ultimate compromise, the whole debate proved to be so lengthy and so acrimonious that Kate Arnold, a senior at Hylton High School serving as the board’s student representative, admonished the board for setting a poor example for students.
From Raulston blasting the work of one of Sawyers’ associates to lead a recall campaign against her in 2016, to Williams’ clashes with Deutsch over what she deemed “repeated attacks on our chairman,” the whole night left some members feeling chastened.
“Until Ryan Sawyers is no longer the chair, he is still the chair. If you want him to be gone, continue with the signatures and get rid of him,” Jessie said, referencing one group’s effort to recall Sawyers. “But let’s stop putting this before the public...The public sees it and the public wants us to fix it. They don’t want us arguing in front of them.”