Red Apple Mom

March 2, 2011

Highlights from Fairfax County School Board Trial

I arrived to court this morning about an hour late due to a possible case of strep in my house.

Fortunately, my daughter got the “all clear” to attend school and I made it in time for the bulk of School Board member Liz Bradsher’s testimony.

Liz Bradsher

The only highlight I apparently missed was Bradsher drawing a blank when asked by the plaintiff’s attorney how many people serve on the Fairfax County School Board.  (For future reference, that would be 12.)

Today’s trial was about as exciting as – well as a School Board meeting.  There were no smoking guns, and the closest we came to a Denny Crane moment was how well dressed the FCPS attorney appears.

We did learn a couple of interesting factoids though.  Apparently School Board Chair Kathy Smith and School Board member Tessie Wilson don’t feel that emails from Dean Tistadt, Chief Operating Officer for Fairfax County Public Schools, warrant their attention during School Board meetings.

On the night of the vote to close Clifton ES last July, one of the focal points for the discussion was a report about the safety of the Clifton ES well.  Tistadt sent a detailed email to School Board members during that meeting containing important test results that showed the well was safe and not radioactive as predicted.

The plaintiff’s attorneys asked Chairman Kathy Smith and Board member Tessie Wilson about Tistadt’s email today.

Plaintiff AttorneyDid you receive an email from Dean Tistadt?

Tessie Wilson

Tessie Wilson: I do not recall seeing the email.

Plaintiff Attorney: Please turn to page 2, exhibit 65.

Tessie Wilson: I do not recall seeing this email.  I don’t always read emails that come during a meeting.

Plaintiff Attorney: Do you recall receiving this email from Dean Tistadt?

Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith: I recall Tessie Wilson showing it to me.

Plaintiff Attorney: Did you read it?

Kathy Smith: No.

For the record, Dean Tistadt did speak at the School Board meeting that same night and provided some of the details about the well’s test results to School Board members in person.  He did not, however, cover all of the issues that might have been helpful to School Board members in deciding whether or not to close Clifton ES.

During Liz Bradsher’s testimony in court, she testified that the vote to close Clifton ES, was “a serious vote.”  Serious indeed.  This was a vote to close one of FCPS’ most successful elementary schools.  So why couldn’t Smith and Wilson read an email from one of FCPS’ highest ranking officials when they knew Tistadt was in receipt of test results that were pertinent to the issue they were voting on that evening?

Finally, here’s another factoid we learned today.  If you file a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA) with FCPS, you won’t get a reply until FCPS consults with their legal counsel first.  I felt that is worth noting because as we have seen with FCPS’ current discipline policies, FCPS students aren’t lavished the same legal attention.  A student can be questioned without a parent present and bringing an attorney into the situation can make it even worse for the student.  But a FOIA request – now that’s a different story.  We learned today that FOIA requests get the best FCPS legal attention that taxpayer money can buy!

Closing arguments in the trial finish Thursday morning and I’ll provide a wrap-up of those points tomorrow.  Don’t expect an immediate verdict though.  Attorneys tell me each side will likely present a post-trial brief to the judge summarizing their side of the case.  The judge may then rule from the bench or issue a written opinion.  Either option could take between two weeks to three months.

Meantime, can someone FOIA just how much FCPS is spending on this case?  I’d like to know how much “transparency” or the “lack of transparency” – depending on this judge’s ruling – actually costs in this county!

Trial Tidbit: FCPS’ law firm includes a familiar face – former School Board Member Phil Niedzielski-Eichner’s daughter is assisting the defense team.

© Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom, 2001. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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9 Comments

  1. Give me a break – so the SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS were SENDING emails to each other, just not READING THEM? How stupid is that?
    Looks like Hunton & Williams is a sleazy outfit:
    http://www.democracynow.org/2011/3/2/headlines/dems_urge_probe_of_firms_linked_to_chamber_of_commerce

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/25/AR2011022506159.html

    http://legaltimes.typepad.com/blt/2011/02/complaint-accuses-hunton-williams-of-dirty-tricks.html

    Our tax dollars at work. November elections CAN’T COME SOON ENOUGH!

    Comment by redmomma2 — March 3, 2011 @ 6:34 am

  2. Kathy Smith testified that Tessie Wilson “showed” her the email. She didn’t say Tessie emailed it to her. It will be interesting to see how the attorneys “connect the dots” in today’s closing arguments. Yesterday, the defense argued that sending an email to three or more members doesn’t mean they are “communicating.” They argued that it is possible Board members may receive emails and not read them. The defense believes that unless it is an “instant messaging” situation where simultaneous communication is evident, then there is no violation of the Open Meetings Act. Well see today how the plaintiff’s address that argument.

    Comment by Red Apple Mom — March 3, 2011 @ 7:38 am

  3. BUT during the Clifton vote, Liz Bradsher ANNOUNCED TO THE AUDIENCE THAT SHE WAS READING HER DAUGHTER’S EMAILS ABOUT THE WELL WATER!

    Comment by redmomma2 — March 3, 2011 @ 7:55 am

    • You’re right redmomma2. And it’s all the more shocking when you realize that Bradsher’s daughter is a high school student. It would be one thing if her daughter was some sort of an environmental engineer providing a professional opinion. But I’m personally not comfortable with School Board members providing “information” to the public and fellow decision makers that is provided by a child doing an internet search for their mom. We’re the 11th largest school district. Can’t we rely on expert opinions for critical decision making?

      Comment by Red Apple Mom — March 3, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

  4. Let me get this right.
    The Chairman of the Fairfax County School Board and the (immediate past) Vice Chairman don’t READ the emails they receive so they can claim they didn’t break the FOIA law and the Open Meetings Act, but the do comment on the emails and forward them to others (one at a time, again so they don’t break the law)?
    So, when they received the critical information by email during their Regular Business meeting from the Chief Facilities Officer regarding the acceptability of the water at Clifton ES, they didn’t read it so they can say they didn’t break the law?
    If they didn’t read it, how did they make an informed vote, since the critical information was (connecting the dots) ‘c-r-i-t-c-a-l’?
    They either 1) broke the law OR 2) valiantly in the law-abiding efforts, intentionally refused to read the email – – – but then deliberately cast an ill-informed and baseless vote?

    You know when kids lie that they didn’t take cookies – with crumbs all over their face?
    And you tell them “you have crumbs on your face”.
    Then the story starts spinning and spinning as the lies become phantasmagorical?
    Getting the picture?

    Best reported overhead quote of the day? “WOW. Those people lie. A lot.”

    Comment by momlikeu — March 3, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

  5. It does sound like Smith, Wilson, et al. knew exactly what they were doing in reading/not reading e-mails during the board meeting. Especially in not reading Dean T’s e-mail regarding the water safety. Given my observations of SB business over the past 7 years, I’m pretty sure that if the e-mail about the water had indicated that the water was not safe, the SBM’s voting to close Clifton would have cited it during the meeting. I am still shaking my head when I think about Bradsher telling her fellow SBM’s and the meeting audience about the e-mail she had just received from her high school daughter regarding Clifton. Very professional.

    Comment by pommefrites — March 3, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

  6. […] School Board, and was set up after the controversy over the closing of Clifton Elementary School.  Read this particular post about the recent FOIA trial in Fairfax where citizens are being denied access to THEIR public […]

    Pingback by Could There Possibly Be A Worse School Board Than Loudoun’s? — March 3, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

  7. I attended the meeting last week when they voted to adopt the boundry changes for the SW region. I stayed after the meeting was adjourned to talk to one member. They mingled around while staff packed up and left. Then one of them got before the desk and went through all of the other board members giving them the chance to talk about how they felt. Smith was particularly upset about the way Hone characterized Smith’s proposed amendment to take $500K from the savings of Clifton Elementary to fund all day K in her district. She said that Hone’s characterization made her feel bad. Bradsher talked about how hard the issue of Clifton was for her. Despite feeling like I was watching someone’s private psychologist’s appointment, I wondered if this was a “meeting”. They were discussing the protocol of how to respond to the audience and all. But there were no cameras rolling and it was just them, the remaining tech guys packing up equipment, and a couple of other people. Was this a “meeting”? Do they do this after every adjournment?

    Comment by lexicali74 — March 4, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    • Yes I understand that they do. I’m told the Board will sometimes go into a closed session – out of public view – to criticize each other. And I’ve also been told by two current members of the Board how other members will gang up on a specific Member in order to “silence” such comments at future meetings. We don’t see the Board of Supervisors behave this way! So why does our School Board feel it is okay to do so? I’m looking forward to the reform slate of candidates who are running for School Board this year. I’m confident we’ll see a lot of new faces on the Board who not only believe in free speech but respect the rights of others to freely express their opinions at these public meetings. The School Board’s meeting discussions should be deliberative. Too often, however, our current Board takes a negative view of any challenging comment.

      Comment by Red Apple Mom — March 4, 2011 @ 1:46 pm


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