Clark sues school board, selection commission

Published 11:35 am Thursday, July 14, 2022

Tony Clark, of Southampton County, filed a lawsuit Tuesday, July 12, in Southampton Circuit Court against the Southampton County School Board and the Southampton County School Board Selection Commission, stating that the commission acted in violation of the Code of Virginia.

Tony Clark

The lawsuit describes itself as “a proceeding to compel the commission to vacate their school board appointments dated June 27, 2022.”

In Section 22.1-37 of the Code of Virginia, it states, “Before any appointment is made by the school board selection commission, it shall give notice, by publication once a week for four successive weeks in a newspaper having general circulation in such county, of the time and place of any meeting for the purpose of appointing the members of the county school board. Such notice shall be given whether the appointment is of a member or members of the county school board for the full term of office as provided by law or of a member to fill a vacancy occurring in the membership of the county school board or of a member from a new school district.”

The Southampton County School Board Selection Commission published notices in The Tidewater News on May 25, June 1, June 8 and June 15, announcing that it would be meeting in the Southampton County School Board Office Complex in Courtland at 11 a.m. on June 20 and June 27 for the purpose of appointing three members of the Southampton County School Board.

The seats needing appointees were those representing the Boykins District, the Jerusalem District and the At-Large District, and the terms needing to be filled run from July 1, 2022, through June 30, 2026.

The June 20 meeting was for the public hearing of candidates for the open seats, and the June 27 meeting was for the actual appointing of the commission’s selections.

The public notice concludes by stating, “Candidates should be present at both meetings or should notify a selection commissioner of their intentions.”

The commission is composed of three members: Chairman Larry Rose, Larry Blunt and George Collins Jr.

Collins confirmed that there were eight total applicants for the open school board seats. The candidates included, for the Boykins District, incumbent and School Board Chair Dr. Deborah Goodwyn and Tasha Clemons; for the Jerusalem District, incumbent Christopher Smith Sr. and Amanda Hall; and for the At-Large District, Kashif Carter, Tony Clark, Orris Lane and Jennifer Tindle.

In a July 12 social media post made within the Facebook group “SoCo Votes – Elect Our School Board,” Clark provided the background on his lawsuit by giving an account of his experience as one of the school board candidates.

“At 10:15 a.m. on the 20th, candidates who had already notified the commission of their intent to apply for a board position were informed by call and/or text that the meeting was being moved to the Southampton High School auditorium, same date, and time,” he wrote. 

This represented a change in location approximately 45 minutes before the meeting.

“Those who had not yet announced their intention to apply were obviously not informed of the change,” Clark wrote. “A note was posted on one of the doors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Extension Office, adjacent to the school board office, of the change in location. No other public notification was made by the selection commission.”

He stated that when the meeting began at the high school auditorium, which is located on U.S. Route 58 about three miles away from the USDA office, the concern was raised by some in attendance that the change in location made it an improper public hearing. 

“The commission proceeded with the hearing anyway,” he wrote.

He then noted that the commission reconvened June 27 at the USDA office at 11 a.m. to announce its selections.

Goodwyn and Smith were reappointed, and Lane was appointed to the at-large seat that had been occupied by William Worsham.

“The public notice stated that all applicants should be at both public hearings or notify the selection commission of their intention,” Clark wrote. “When the meeting convened at 11 a.m., the newly appointed individual (Lane) was not present. Most Southampton County citizens in attendance pointed out to the commission that the appointment was invalid because she was neither present nor had informed the commission she could not be in attendance.”

Clark also stated that the propriety of the June 20 public hearing was again brought up for discussion. 

“One commission member stated that there was no policy or procedure manual to guide them through the pending dilemma, so at 11:10 a.m. the commission adjourned for 30 minutes to discuss its options,” he wrote. “When the meeting reconvened at 11:45 a.m., the previously absent but appointed candidate was suddenly in attendance. Meeting attendees again voiced their concerns about the process by which the commission had conducted the two hearings.

“After shouting down my personal objections to the invalid meeting on the 20th, the commission adjourned the meeting at the request of the school board chair who has no authority over the selection commission,” he continued.

Clark then underscored how he has been publicly opposed to the county’s current school board selection process for nearly 12 years and, alluding to the purpose of the Facebook group in which he was posting, stated that he has worked to get a referendum on the ballot which would allow Southampton County voters to choose their method of selecting school board members.

“However, the behavior of the commission in this instance and their clear violation of open government laws left me no option but to pursue immediate legal action to put an end to this year’s farce of a selection process,” he wrote. “After confirming the obvious breach of state code with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and in consultation with legal counsel, today I filed suit in (circuit) court to seek injunctive relief from any actions stemming from the invalid June 20th and 27th public hearings.”

Clark’s lawsuit states, as he did in his social media post, that those in attendance at the commission’s June 27 meeting objected to the validity of the meeting and the June 20 meeting.

“The selection commission heard but failed to act on said objections,” the lawsuit continues. “By not advertising the time and location of the June 20th, 2022, meeting for four weeks prior to the meeting, the commission acted in violation of the Code of Virginia. In doing so, their appointments on June 27th, 2022, are invalid and should be vacated.”

In the lawsuit, Clark moves for the following specific relief:

  • A declaration that the Southampton County School Board Selection Commission violated the Code of Virginia by meeting without giving proper notice;
  • The appointments of Goodwyn, Smith and Lane be vacated;
  • The commission ordered to reschedule a hearing and give proper notice as required by Virginia Code Section 22.1-37;
  • Any decisions made by the Southampton County School Board after June 27, 2022, be null and void until a proper hearing can be held;
  • An order enjoining the Southampton County School Board until proper notice is given of another public hearing to properly appoint school board members to the three open seats; and 
  • Any other remedies the court deems appropriate.

The Southampton County School Board had its first meeting with Goodwyn and Smith in their new terms and Lane seated on Monday, July 11.

The Tidewater News called the selection commission chairman early Wednesday evening, July 13, but had not received a call back as of press time.

In his social media post, Clark made a point to say that while he was disappointed not to have been appointed to the at-large seat, he was not filing the lawsuit out of “sour grapes.”

“To make that clear and apparent, when the commission is legally compelled, as I and many others believe they will be, to hold new hearings to reappoint those three seats, I will not present myself as a candidate again for the at-large seat,” he stated. “I wish that new board member, if appointed under proper due process, nothing but the best as she will be working for the betterment of our school system.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, shared her thoughts on the selection commission’s change of the June 20 meeting location.

“The purpose of the notice requirements is to give the public time to assess the importance of the issues being considered so they can plan whether or not to attend, whether or not to comment, etc.,” she stated. “If the notice advertises one location but then is held in a different location, that defeats the purpose. 

“On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that the purpose has been defeated if the change were simply from one room in a building to another,” she continued. “And a change in location from one building to one in the same complex doesn’t give as much heartburn either, provided the change is clearly conveyed to the public arriving at the original location. 

“Where I would be most bothered is if the new location was somewhere that required further transportation and effort,” she added. “The time involved becomes a factor — the meeting could be progressing while members of the public are traveling to the new site. Also, some people are not going to be able to pivot at all if they arrived by public transportation, had a friend drop them off or if they can walk to the original location but don’t have any kind of transportation to the new location.”

She noted that she would not say that the commission did or did not violate the Freedom of Information Act, but she summarized her thoughts by stating that any change to the location of a meeting should be clearly conveyed to the public well enough in advance to give them ample time to adjust their plans accordingly.

“If anyone feels that what happened violated FOIA’s terms, the remedy, as always, is to pursue the action in court,” she stated. “That’s true in Virginia and most other states, too. However, I have not seen a FOIA case in Virginia that resulted in the undoing of an action taken at a meeting deemed improper by a judge.”

Regardless of whether or not the selection commission is compelled to reappoint the Boykins, Jerusalem and at-large seats, it has additional work to do given an announcement made by Goodwyn at the school board’s July 11 meeting. 

“In June, (School Board Vice Chair) Mr. Jim Pope (III) informed the board and informed the school board selection commission that he was resigning from the school board effective June 30, 2022.”

Pope served in the Capron seat, the home district of Clark, who addressed the opening in his July 12 social media post.

“Since beginning the procedure to file this suit, the seat for my home district has become available,” he wrote. “I won’t rule out applying for that position but will not use this suit to my advantage in order to pursue the original position for which I applied.”