UPDATE: Prince William School Board Member Alleges Cancelation of Meeting Defies School Policy

| January 17, 2018 | 1 Comment | Education

Gainesville School Board member Alyson Satterwhite

Prince William School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers canceled the Jan. 17 meeting of the Prince William County School Board, attracting controversy.

A few school board members said they are unhappy with the way in which it was canceled, claiming the chairman’s actions defy the school division regulations and policies as he made the decision without polling the school board.

The school division superintendent canceled school for Jan. 17 due to snow and the possibility of slippery road conditions. Discussion over canceling the board meeting is not unusual on a snow day. However, it should be noted that road conditions had greatly improved on Wednesday, and school board meeting have been held under much worse conditions.

Sawyers said that he found there was not going to be enough members to have a quorum, and so informed, he canceled the meeting.

“On the school board meeting cancellation, it became clear to me that based upon communication with individual board members and their concerns about the weather, there would not be a quorum for tonight’s meeting. I informed the clerk and the meeting was canceled. There was no board poll vote taken nor is one required under the policy governing board polls,” said Sawyers in a correspondence.

Gainesville District School Board member Alyson Satterwhite argued that Sawyers acted against policy in calling off the meeting without first polling all members.

She claims on her school board member Friends of Alyson Satterwhite Facebook page that he should not be making a unilateral decision, nor should he be consulting with some members and not others. All three Republican members claimed to have not been consulted.

This new controversy is one of several public disagreement between Satterwhite and Sawyers. She has previously alleged he has acted unilaterally on behalf of the board in defiance of policy; he often disagrees with her interpretation of policy.

In a letter to Sawyers Wednesday morning, Satterwhite defended her stance by citing specific school policies. She referenced policy 113, which states the school board “shall not be bound by any statement or action of an individual Prince William County School Board member.”

And referenced Policy 137 which states: “separate contact with members of the School Board to ascertain their position with respect to the transaction of public business, provided that the contract does not constitute a meeting…,” and “if on the date and time the poll responses are due, a majority of a quorum of the Board members responding has communicated the same position on the subject(s) of the poll, then the poll may be considered and the results released to appropriate staff members.”

Satterwhite summarized her position:

The point of all of this is that nothing was done correctly in cancelling the School Board meeting (Wednesday). We have policies and regulations for a reason. They are to protect the Board and to help us stay within the law, as well as FOIA [Freedom of Information Act.] Next time, show the entire School Board the courtesy of including all of us in the decision making. We act as a body corporate. The law requires it.

She previously stated she would be happy to close school for the safety concerns and was only taking issue with way the decision was made as though by decree.

Sawyers disagreed that the policies prohibited him from canceling the meeting.

“I will not engage in your continued verbal gymnastics as you cite policies that aren’t applicable to the situation,” Sawyers replied to her in a letter. He contends a poll was not required to cancel a meeting, especially when he learned there would not be a quorum.

Satterwhite disagreed, telling Bristow Beat a poll still needed to be conducted, and it would have been easy enough to contact all board members who were eager to participate in the process.

Gil Trenum, school board member for the Brentsville District, also wrote Sawyers about the issue.

As per his request, Satterwhite posted Sawyers’ response to him. In the letter, the chairman alleges that when they were in the majority, the Republicans on the board often engaged in “small group decisions for the entire board,” which they now “decry.”

And he claims they have been inconsistent in their expectations on when he should use polling.

“In one breath, (you) complain to local media that I issued too many board polls and in the next breath argue that I should have used a board poll.”

Trenum, who asked that he be included in the article, shared his response to Sawyers:

This has nothing to do with your previous practices. The school board meeting schedule is determined by a School Board action, specifically a vote, just like we did at the last school board meeting for this year’s schedule. Changing that schedule, as in cancelling a meeting, can only be legally accomplished by a similar board action including a vote. A Board Poll accomplishes this and is an appropriate use of the polling process under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

The School Board also has specific requirements for polling which are captured in Policy 137. We did not follow this policy.

My email pointed out that we were in a polling situation; that I was not contacted in accordance with the policy; and that we needed to confirm the poll at the next board meeting. I also indicated my position on the matter whereas my poll vote would have been to not cancel the meeting, consistent with my previous votes over the years. I never disputed the appropriateness of the conduction of a poll or that the outcome was probably a foregone conclusion, just that we needed to follow the process and our policy.

Trenum told reporters that the bigger news story is that Sawyers said he would bar him from voting on access to school board emails, due to a “conflict of interest” which Trenum disputes, thus disenfranchising the people of the Brentsville District. Bristow Beat is looking further into this matter.

Trenum further told Sawyer he did not complain to local media about polling; he brought his concerns to the school board and answered media questions. Trenum said that polling needed to be addressed at the time. “Back in early 2016 we were conducting basic business via board polls and not doing it cleanly with poll confirmation votes, and that is why we adopted the policy that we have today.”

He said it does not negate that policy dictates that polling is required to cancel a board meeting.

Concerning the cancelation of the board meeting, some have publicly speculated that one reason for cancelling the meeting was to interfere with an advocacy event organized by the Prince William Education Association [PWEA]. Association leadership had asked teachers to wear blue and speak out against the bullying, especially bullying of teachers by school leadership.

Satterwhite said she does not believe that was the reason the meeting was canceled, noting the advocacy promoted by the PWEA was not directed towards school board members. She said she will not speculate on the reason the meeting was postponed, only that it was done incorrectly.

The next meeting of the Prince William County School Board is scheduled for Feb. 7. A substitute meeting has not been announced.

Letters referenced in this article can be found on Satterwhite’s Facebook page. 

This article has been updated, Jan. 18 at 9:55 a.m. to include comments from Brentsville school board member Gil Trenum. 

© 2018, Bristow Beat. All rights reserved.

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Category: Education

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  1. Pendragon says:

    Why is the chairman at large so adversarial, combative and snippy?

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