Loudoun County School Division Flooded with Over 500 FOIA Requests

By Ryan Donmoyer

Earlier this year, conservative activists swarmed Loudoun County School Board meetings to protest an array of policies.

Now they’re overwhelming the Loudoun County Public Schools Public Information office with Virginia Freedom of Information Act requests.

More than 500 VFOIA requests have been filed with the school division so far this year, compared to an average of about 90 annually between 2012 and 2018. About 40 percent of them have been filed by a half-dozen individuals who are members of or allied with Fight for Schools, which has led efforts to recall members of the School Board over the policies they have protested.

School division Public Information Officer Wayde Byard said the increase in VFOIA submissions prompted caused the school system to double the number of people who process the requests. “LCPS is not seeking further resources at this time but has begun billing VFIOA requesters because it cannot handle the current volume free of charge,” Byard said.

One of those bills made headlines in conservative media publications earlier this month. Byard told Loudoun County lawyer and mother Michelle Mege it would cost $36,000 to fulfill a broad VFOIA request to produce all school district documents mentioning sexual assault and rape.

Omitted from those media reports is that Mege filed at least 95 other VFOIA requests with the administration since March 8, or an average of nearly three per week, according to a log of all requests made in 2021. Those other requests include more narrow requests related to specific sexual assaults at Stone Bridge High School on May 28 and Broad Run High School on Oct. 6. 

Other prolific and outspoken VFOIA requesters in 2021 include Scott Mineo, who runs the group Parents against Critical Race Theory; Ian Prior, executive director of Fight for Schools (for which Mege calls herself a “core volunteer”); Amy Jahr, a parent who criticized LCPS on the Fox News program “The Ingraham Angle”; Emily Emshwiller, whose comments scolding the board at its Oct. 25 meeting were quoted by The Washington Post; and Elicia Brand, spokeswoman for the family of Scott Smith, who was arrested this summer after his daughter was sexually assaulted at Stone Bridge High School.

Virginia FOIA laws place no limits on the number of requests an individual or entity can make, nor does it permit authorities to consider motivation for making them. The law does require requesters to pay any fees that are estimated within 30 days or the public body no longer has to fulfill the request.

The law gives governments wide latitude to deny requests for specific reasons and allows governments to charge requesters for the “actual cost” associated with locating and providing records.

The school division’s VFOIA deluge comes as the Virginia General Assembly prepares to reconvene in January. In that session, it may consider a bill sponsored by Del. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) that would caps the fees governments can charge to search for process requests at $33 per hour.

Roem said in an e-mail that as a trans-woman and former journalist, she has followed events in Loudoun County closely but the sharp increase in VFOIAs doesn’t change the need for her legislation, which she intends to refile when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. 

“None of that changes the need for my bill,” said Roem, who described her legislation as a “good faith” effort to address the concerns of both VFOIA requesters and custodians of records. “The current system overwhelmingly defaults to the side of the custodians and I’m working to bring the pendulum to the center so we have actual balance,” Roem said.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said Roem’s legislation faces opposition from local governments and Virginia law enforcement agencies that fear it would encourage abuse of VFOIA laws, including harassment of under-resourced governments.

“It’s a complex issue,” Rhyne said. “You can’t just say harassment is sheer volume because there are things that happen in state and local government that are going to happen that have intense public interest and with that public interest will come an increase in VFOIA filings.”

The use of FOIA for fishing expeditions has long been a subject of controversy in Virginia and nationally. Some states including Illinois allow governments to sue citizens for vexatious use of FOIA. A decade-long effort to allow Virginia governments to do the same died in 2011 because no one could agree on what constituted harassment, Rhyne said. 

Martin Crim, a Manassas attorney who represents local governments in FOIA matters, testified earlier this year that Roem’s legislation “presents an invitation for individuals angry at local government for any reason to harass the local government and to abuse the law out of spite … each locality I have worked for has had at least one FOIA antagonist at some point who filed multiple document requests for no practical purpose, so it cannot be said that the local governments must have done something to deserve such abuse.”

In Loudoun County, the vast majority of the 500-plus requests filed to date demand e-mails of board members and LCPS administrators on a range of topics that thrust the division into the national spotlight. They also seek a wide range of details about interactions with private individuals, including proponents of policies opposed by Fight for Schools aimed at improving racial equity in schools and supporting inclusion of transgender students. 

A large number also sought records relating to former Leesburg District school board member Beth Bart’s participation in the anti-racist Parents of Loudoun County Facebook group earlier this year. Others sought records related to the suspension of Leesburg Elementary School Byron “Tanner” Cross after he announced his intention to refuse to comply with a new policy requiring teachers to address transgender students by their preferred pronouns. 

Mineo has focused many of his requests seeking training programs his group believe are tantamount to training teachers about the tenets of critical race theory. He also filed several requests for correspondence from school officials that mention his name or that of his organization

 “When people from the school board and others coordinate to come after me, my family, business and place of employment, I have a right to know who it was,” he said.

The district’s handling of the recent sexual assaults at Stone Bridge and Broad Run high schools by the same student perpetrator has triggered a new wave of requests in recent weeks.

Mege said the letter demanding $36,000 was given to conservative media outlets by Fight for Schools. She also said she often amends broader requests to make them more targeted. “I usually narrow down my request until it is less than $200 so it is free,” she said. 

In the case of the VFOIA for Loudoun school records mentioning “sexual assault” or “rape,” for example, Mege filed subsequent requests for phone logs at Stone Bridge High School, any e-mails between Ziegler and board member Harris Mahedavi (Ashburn) that use the keywords, and any e-mails between Stone Bridge High School Timothy Flynn and any juvenile detention center between May 28 and October 21 (no such records existed, according to LCPS).

Mege and other LCPS critics are also filing myriad and repeated requests for records of other board members who have been targeted for recalls. They have also sought records of communications between schoool personnel and individuals working for many of the policies opposed by groups like Fight for Schools and Parents Against CRT.

“We have people and groups fishing for anything to justify, no matter how thin, a recall over policies,” said Todd Kaufman, a member with the group Loudoun for All, an adversary group of Fight for Schools. 

When asked why she was seeking correspondence between policy adversaries and school officials, Mege replied, “This is relevant to understand policy advocacy in general.”

Rhyne said requesters’ motives don’t matter when it comes to the law. “Maybe that person does have an ideological agenda, but VFOIA shouldn’t care and government shouldn’t care,” she said.

10 thoughts on “Loudoun County School Division Flooded with Over 500 FOIA Requests

  • 2021-12-23 at 10:02 am
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    Competence, full online public disclosure, and the dedication to serve our children, rather than the creepy ideological whims of the superintendent and special interest groups, would prevented all this.

    Maybe avoiding super duper secret double dog dare facebook groups as public officials would display common sense, yet they failed. All of this is the result of elected public servants not doing their job of representing the best interests of our kids. This 110 percent on them. They created this, and now they want to be the victims. Resign for the good of the county, and for what little self-respect they have left.

  • 2021-12-23 at 10:34 am
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    Misuse of government office is tyranny and the people doing so hate sunlight. If the petty tyrants running the LCPS would stop their ideological war against students and parents these FOIA requests would largely cease.

    But instead of ceasing their assault on Loudoun residents these petty tyrants are going to blame people for using laws put in place to keep government officials from abusing their offices. We haven’t forgotten the ordeal you unleashed on the Smith family. The board and Ziegler should do the right thing and resign.

  • 2021-12-23 at 10:48 am
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    I do believe some of LCPS’ critics are on a fishing expedition. They may be fine individuals but they’re misdirected. Thank you Loudoun Now for giving both sides of the story. It’s so refreshing to read, after being inundated with right-wing rag accounts on LCPS’ Facebook page. I just wish some of these activists would take a break. They’re flailing about & wasting a lot of time & resources. Well, c’est la vie. Happy Holidays Loudoun!

  • 2021-12-23 at 12:42 pm
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    The best way to reduce FOIA requests (in my experience as a school board member for 8 years) is to honestly disclose everything that is not statutorily protected. For example – LCPS can produce 100% of bullying events per school per month as long as they don’t publish the student’s name yet to this day such reporting is absent from meeting output so apparently even the school board doesn’t want to know. Maybe Tom M. (who has about a half century of in-school and school board experience) can explain to the rest of the board some basics like how to focus on education not partisan, virtue signaling political speech which seems to have been going on since the last local election in my opinion. 🙂

  • 2021-12-23 at 3:10 pm
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    After untold years of watching Loudoun parents sit there and not care what their kids were being taught, it is so refreshing to see parents finally getting really involved. The educational revolution is truly underway (finally!).

    • 2021-12-23 at 10:52 pm
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      I don’t know if it was a case of parents not caring what their kids were being taught, it was more an assumption by parents that the schools were teaching actual history, not their version of it, and that the teachers were sticking with a curriculum that was factual, and not the kind of agenda that the school board and many teachers are now following.
      I was blissfully ignorant of all of this until my oldest child came home from school one day and said “weed isn’t bad for you. My teacher said it was fine and people shouldn’t complain about it”. It was then that I started taking a hard look at what my kids were being indoctrinated with, and I got actively involved from then on.

  • 2021-12-23 at 6:37 pm
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    Let’s revisit some facts on how LCPS handles FOIA requests:

    1. When I requested salaries of LCPS teachers in 2015, LCPS simply ignored the request. In a FOIA petition in Loudoun Circuit Court, Judge Irby ignored the claim refusing to make them produce the records despite no evidence of production and no exemption under FOIA whatsoever.

    2. I also requested to see records related to what LCPS spent on intervening in court cases. LCPS responded with “no records exist” over and over and over again until another resident issued the same request. Funny how that works

    3. I asked for records of conflicts of interest. No records were provided for SB member Hornberger despite testimony in court by Wayde Byard and briefings by LCPS attorneys that it had been provided. The Virginia state police stated there was extensive and compelling evidence Byard committed perjury in court.

    4. I asked for records that LCPS maintained related to me. LCPS acknowledged it had 200+ pages but refused to give them (a violation under state law) and then tried to bill me $300+ even though it provided no records and was against their policy to bill before providing an initial estimate.

    5. I asked for emails on SGP data going back 3 years. LCPS gave me a $4000 estimate. When I tried to narrow the request to a specific time (one month) LCPS said they would not entertain that and required I pay for the whole time period to get any emails

    None of this is even disputed. Loudoun Now acts like LCPS’ apologist. LCPS has even acknowledged Loudoun Now is very “friendly” to LCPS. As Bob noted above, LCPS can provide “answers” to residents seeking to get information when records may not be the best medium. LCPS refuses to give out anything that it can exempt. And it often violates the law knowing the judges often ignore laws to benefit their government friends at Education Court. This is one of the most corrupt counties in the country. It is a shame we have no watchdog in the press to open up our local government.

  • 2021-12-23 at 10:17 pm
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    FOIA’s are up because we don’t trust our elected officials. It really is that simple.

    What is the fix? Flush them all and start over would be a good start. They have NO credibility nor do they have any shame for their incompetence.

    Pathetic.

  • 2021-12-25 at 12:34 pm
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    At $30,000 per request that will add $15m to the surplus

  • 2021-12-27 at 6:11 am
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    Professional behaviors should always include as though a lawyer is looking over your shoulder. The school board members should all be investigated and spot checked periodically. They should have never been provided with free range over our children, ever. It is long over due that parents act as parents and question what our public schools are doing. These members are government employees and they work for us.
    Please take the time to look at what Albemarle County Schools are requesting of their teachers. Go on line and act like you are applying for a teaching position and see first hand how the left have progressed in our schools throughout America. Parents, you especially should stay informed. Your child is developmentally unable to question what they are being taught. This is your job now. God Bless our children and their parents.

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