The Letter

by Joe Fitzgerald 

“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane.”

Depending on your age, you may think of this as the opening to the Box Tops biggest and most iconic hit. If you don’t follow pop music, you may think any song that begins with “gimme” might be from a news story about a county school board chair.

The line of course kicks off the 1967 hit, “The Letter.” Those two words are being bandied about now in reference to a document the Rockingham County School Board (RCSB) says people can’t be allowed to see.

The Letter was apparently written to the RCSB from the law firm that represented it beginning when LBJ was president and ending last week. “To the RCSB” is the certain part. It may have been from the firm, or from one attorney in the firm.

I have not seen The Letter. I have not talked to anyone who has seen The Letter.

But a lot of people seem to know what is in The Letter. If it was written to the five people on the county board, and each one of them had a single conversation about it, and each of the people spoke to . . . etc. More people have heard about what was in The Letter than have actually seen it. But the degrees of separation mean the knowledge of what’s in The Letter has been paraphrased more than once.

The single thing from The Letter that everybody seems to know is that The Letter and not the county School Board’s secret actions ended the firm’s relationship with the county board. Everybody knowing it does not make it true, but if it is not true, the School Board should perhaps show it was not fired as a client. The board could show that by releasing The Letter.

The Letter has been FOIAed, a makeshift verb to say it has been requested under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA request has been rejected. The county School Board has cited attorney-client privilege. Legally, that privilege generally constrains the attorney more than the client. BotkinRose, the law firm no longer representing the county schools and the firm that wrote The Letter, cannot release The Letter, nor should it. But as a matter of privilege, the school board almost certainly can release The Letter.

Virginia’s FOIA does not constrain what a government body can release. Employee and student information must be kept confidential, but that is because of other laws and regulations, not FOIA. FOIA says some records can be kept secret, but not that they must.

This is not a matter of the Rockingham County School Board not being allowed to release The Letter. It is a matter of the board members choosing not to. The phrasing “I don’t have to if I don’t want to” sounds like something from one of the county’s elementary school playgrounds. If you’re hearing it from the school system’s leadership, you might need a more professional school board chair.

If there is information in The Letter that impacts specific school employees or specific students, then that information can and should be confidential. That information can be blacked out in a public version of the document, either by a staff member using a Sharpie or a School Board member using a crayon. The Letter was in response to an action that was taken in closed session, hidden from the public, and apparently hidden up to a point from one of the board’s members. Let us give the School Board the benefit of the doubt, and assume there was something about their deliberations, something about their actions, that was so shameful or embarrassing that they must hide the actions themselves and the law firm’s response. FOIA allows them to do that. FOIA does not require them to do that. Hiding actions from the public is not what the Freedom of Information Act was designed for.

Joe Fitzgerald is a former mayor of Harrisonburg. Republished with permission from Still Not Sleeping.