From Inside NOVA

Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers is taking another school division official to court, pressing for access to some of board attorney Mary McGowan’s emails.

Sawyers filed a petition for a writ of mandamus against McGowan on Sept. 13, asking a Prince William County Circuit Court judge to order the attorney to grant him access to any email correspondence between her, the rest of the school board and Superintendent Steve Walts.

The chairman, who is also running for Congress as a Democrat, is already locked in a legal battle with Walts, claiming the administrator is blocking him from viewing his predecessor’s email correspondence. But this new legal action targets McGowan, as Sawyers argues in the filing that she has “arbitrarily and capriciously” withheld access to her legally privileged communications with the board and Walts.

Overall, he alleges that McGowan “provided wildly divergent explanations of when, to whom and under what circumstances privileged emails can be circulated to board members.” Sawyers claims that his email exchanges with McGowan have been forwarded to the whole board for reference — as McGowan represents the board as a body, not individual members — but he has rarely been extended the same courtesy when other board members correspond with McGowan.

“She’s arguing she can have privileged conversations with some members and not others,” Sawyers said in an interview. “She’s making this personal. She’s personally protecting current and former board members from having their embarrassing emails shared.”

School division spokesman Phil Kavits said McGowan won’t be commenting on Sawyers’ suit, as it’s become “contentious” and “divisive” among board members and PWCS officials.

“The situation needs to be resolved on the board and in the courts, where appropriate,” Kavits said.

For his part, Sawyers said he has suspected for more than a year that McGowan has not been copying him on email exchanges with other board members, but he decided to take action as her annual performance evaluation on Sept. 20 draws near. In a series of emails over the last few weeks, he has pressed McGowan for access to all of her correspondence with the rest of the board, only to be rebuffed repeatedly.

“I don’t know how we can evaluate someone if we don’t know how she communicates with all of the board,” Sawyers said. “The scary part is, she says she not only can’t share emails with me, but she insists on continuing to share my emails with the rest of the board.”

In emails attached to Sawyers’ suit as exhibits, McGowan wrote that she doesn’t have the ability to release the sort of correspondence the chairman is seeking “without the permission of the majority of the school board.” She added that “there does not appear to be any correlation between the thousands of emails falling within [Sawyers’] unprecedented request and the evaluation instrument the school board uses to evaluate division counsel.”

But Sawyers argues it would be “dangerous” if a majority of the board could block one member from seeing correspondence with the board’s attorney. He also said McGowan has applied this standard inconsistently — in one exhibit attached to the suit, Sawyers shared an email exchange between McGowan and board member Willie Deutsch of the Coles District that the attorney later shared with the chairman as evidence of her uneven practices.

“The board didn’t take a vote to give this email away,” Sawyers said. “She’s protecting some board members conversations’ with herself while not protecting mine or whoever else.”

But other board members have previously claimed the chairman harbors a grudge against McGowan — she has been representing the school division in an unrelated lawsuit involving Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop — which came to a head at the board’s Sept. 6 meeting. Though Sawyers could not attend the meeting, the board spent more than a hour clashing over his request that McGowan be removed from her place on the dais in the board’s chambers.

Yet Sawyers claims that he is merely fighting for “transparency for all board members.”

“This applies to all board members equally, not just me,” Sawyers said. “All board members should be able to see every email Mary ever sent me, and every email I send her.”

He even offered to give any school board member concerned about his motives full access to his own email account, pledging that he has “nothing to hide.”

Sawyers is well aware that he will be attacked for distracting from the school division’s pressing needs or wasting its money on lawsuits now that he has filed yet another case against a PWCS official. But he believes all the criticism is worth the hassle.

“I bring these writs with a heavy heart and a lighter wallet,” Sawyers said. “I can’t do the business of the board with partial or misleading information. When we make misinformed votes, the lack of information becomes very expensive. The cost of legal fees pales in comparison to any inefficiency in a billion-dollar budget.”

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