Chairman Sawyers Wants School Board Members to Have ‘Unfettered’ Access to Predecessors’ Emails

| January 18, 2018 | 0 Comments | Education

Prince William Chairman At-large Ryan Sawyers delivers a presentation on the school board’s budget for 2017-18.

Prince William School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers wants to add an item to the school board agenda that would allow board members to gain full access to their predecessor’s emails.

Additionally, in a letter to Brentsville school board representative, Gil Trenum, Sawyers told Trenum he would need to recuse himself from that vote because it would benefit him as a long time member.

A judge ruled in late November of 2017 that Ryan Sawyers, Chairman At-large of the Prince William County School Board, could not gain full access to his predecessor’s email. Now, Sawyers is attempting to access those emails via other means: a board vote. He has stated his intention to add it to the school board agenda.

A board vote has always been an option. According to a Prince William County Spokesperson, former Communications Director Phil Kavits, Superintendent Dr. Steven L. Walts said the school division would not release emails solely based upon Sawyers’ request, but it would should a majority board vote approve it.

And before it could be placed on the agenda, Sawyers would need the support of Vice Chairwoman Lillie Jessie, the Occoquan school board member and a member of Sawyers’ political party.

In a letter to Trenum, Sawyers, who is also running for U.S. Congress as a Democrat, said he would be seeking to place an item on the agenda to allow all school board members unfettered access to their predecessor’s emails. He contends it is about transparency and equality.

“As to my proposed motions granting individual board members access to their predecessor’s emails, the issue is about one thing – fairness.  Board members who have served for multiple terms have an advantage over their peers who have served fewer terms,” said Sawyers in an email to Bristow Beat.

Sawyers said that Trenum, who has served on the board for approximately 10 years, was recently able to retrieve one of his archived email from years back informing him on legal matters, something he and other school board members do not have the luxury of doing.

Trenum believes that is inaccurate description of the events that transpired.*

I asked the division attorney to please research the matter to determine if there were any applicable documents and share those with the entire board,” said Trenum. “I made this request based on my recollections of discussions at the time; the only information that was uniquely available to me was what was buried somewhere in the nooks and crannies of my brain,” he said, noting he received the documentation at the same time as the rest of the board.

Sawyers also notes that in the case of Shawn Brann who replaced Trenum when Trenum was away on active duty, having Brann’s emails would be of obvious benefit to Trenum.

“Should the people Mr. Brann was helping at the end of his service be ‘out of luck’ if they don’t know to contact Mr. Trenum?  Clearly not. Mr. Trenum should be able to pick up right where Mr. Brann left off or even change director should he so choose.”

Sawyers counters the assumption that parents would not like their emails being shared between school board members. He does not think that will be a problem, since they are already public correspondences.

When a parent types an email to a board member’s public email address they are sending that correspondence to the office of a public official – not their friend or confidant and not even the individual holding that office. That communication is subject to the Freedom of Information Act. If all or parts of that communication are subject to exemption under the FOIA statute, then they are protected from public disclosure. Parents communicating directly with an individual school board member will continue to enjoy all the protections they had prior to this policy being enacted.

Sawyers said it could work for a parent’s benefit. “Won’t that family be thrilled that I found their old email and take up their cause?”

However, Gainesville school board member Alyson Satterwhite sees it much differently. First, she no finds no precedence for granting a school board chairman this kind of all-encompassing access.

She additionally notes that there are privacy concerns in many school board correspondences. Private issues such as employment issues, student behavior issues, medical or special-education concerns, including items that fall under HIPPA or FERPA confidentiality protections. The emails would also contain information about past student who are now adults.

And she thinks releasing the emails without redactions could put the board at legal risk of lawsuits from a parent, employee or student who has concerns about the way the information was released. On the other hand, searching all emails for confidential information is costly and time consuming.

Sawyers believes that is a nonissue as much prior confidential information is available to school board members currently.

“Any access to emails that have HIPPA or FERPA implications would be treated the same as any emails we receive during this term. In fact, we enjoy this freedom today. I can see closed session information, via BoardDocs, going back to 2005.”

Sawyers wants to make it clear that the information is public to the board members and not private, so he is also looking to change the members email addresses to reflect this transparency. Rather than the email consisting of the persons last name and first initial, it would be directed to the district name. This might also make people feel more comfortable in contacting a representative they do not know personally, or might not even know the representative’s name.

And he questions Satterwhite’s motive for denying some school board members access to old emails.

“She’s engaged in the naked partisanship she’s become well known for and she’s exploiting children to make the case. It’s despicable. Her sole motive here is to maintain an information advantage over many of her counterparts on the board for purely political purposes,” Sawyers said.

Meanwhile, Satterwhite said Wednesday that it is Sawyers who is not about serving the school, students or staff interests, but his own.

Of course, in order for the agenda item to pass, it would require a majority vote on the board. Sawyers said in a letter to Trenum, Wednesday, that he would make him recuse himself from the vote, that would be one fewer “nay” votes.

However, Trenum is willing to fight that request, claiming it is unwarranted and would be disenfranchisement of all citizens in the Brentsville District. More about that in a subsequent article. 

*A statement in this article has been added as of Jan. 19 at 11 p.m. 

© 2018, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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