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Board responds to Story lawsuit

A document posted online and on social media Monday evening provided a scathing response to a lawsuit filed last week by School Board member Sherri Story against the board and her fellow members.

Story’s attorney, Kevin Martingayle, found the response “highly unusual.”

“In nearly 30 years of litigation, I cannot recall ever seeing a government-issued press release so emotional and potentially defamatory as a reply to a lawsuit,” Martingayle stated in an emailed response to questions Tuesday morning.

Story filed the lawsuit last week, alleging multiple violations of the state’s open-meetings laws by the School Board. The lawsuit says the board has been conducting meetings inconsistent with Freedom of Information Act regulations, holding “secret votes” by way of email polls and excluding Story and fellow board member David Mitnick from closed meetings because they sought to participate remotely. The lawsuit also alleged the board’s closed-meeting discussions regularly stray beyond permissible topics and that important decisions are made through improper votes or no votes at all.

The lawsuit came after the board disciplined Story in a 5-2 vote for a public censure at its June 11 meeting for what it said were repeated violations of the board’s norms and protocols.

The response issued Monday said the lawsuit is “without merit and will be vigorously defended.”

“Members of the Suffolk City School Board have not violated the Virginia Freedom of Information (Act) as alleged in Story’s court filing.”

The response goes on to state that meetings that don’t comply with the law, as Story alleged, “never happened.”

She was also repeatedly advised that polling of School Board members to ascertain their positions is allowed under FOIA, “but she continues to maintain a contrary position, which is wholly unsupported in law or fact.”

The release goes on to state that FOIA “does not compel attendance at closed meetings from remote locations by School Board members.” It adds that closed-meeting discussions have included “only business matters lawfully exempted from open meeting requirements were discussed and considered.”

The press release closes: “Story filed this lawsuit following her censure by the School Board as a veil attempt to distract attention from her repeated violations of norms and protocols, confidentiality of closed meeting discussions, and allegations that she spoke disparagingly to staff and students of Suffolk Public Schools.

“Story continues to sow seeds of disunity, which only hampers the School Board’s overall ability to address some of the major issues impacting Suffolk Public Schools during this pandemic and school closure. Although Story asserts a concern for transparency in school operations, Story has been transparent, but not with the truth. She consistently peddles false and misleading information to the general public, including the unsubstantiated allegations set forth in her lawsuit, and for no other reason than for public attention. Hopefully, the voters of Suffolk will see this for what it really is.

“The School Board will mount a vigorous defense.”

Martingayle said the press release raises lots of questions, including who drafted and authorized it and when and how it was approved.

The News-Herald contacted the school division with some of these questions and received this statement from Community Engagement Officer Anthonette Ward: “The initial article presented by the Suffolk News-Herald only presented a one-sided view. To present the position of the School Board, the Board Chair took the unusual step of issuing a press release during pending litigation. There was no meeting. The response was drafted by the chair with consultation by legal counsel. There will be no further comments made by the School Board regarding this matter.”

The News-Herald had contacted the school division for comment to include in the initial article on Friday, the first full day after the lawsuit had been filed, but the school division’s offices were closed for the Juneteenth holiday.

School Board Chair Phyllis Byrum and Vice Chair Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck did not answer calls seeking comment on Tuesday afternoon.