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School Board members fight to save attorney’s seat


PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY — The first school board meeting of the new school year in Prince William County and, already, there is more infighting among those elected to lead.

The county School Board on Wednesday night spent the better part of an hour debating whether or not it should allow School Board Attorney Mary McGowan to keep her seat alongside School Board members on the dais during public meetings.

A series of emails sent by School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers on Wednesday morning demanded McGowan be removed from the head table, and he asserted that he alone as school board chairman had the authority to remove her.

McGowan has had the job of defending the School Board in two lawsuits involving Sawyers. Earlier this year, Sawyers sued School Division Superintendent Steven Walts after he didn’t give Sawyers access to emails by his predecessor Milton C. Johns.

According to one Sawyers email sent Wednesday, he asked the Virginia State Bar to investigate McGowan after he alleges she inappropriately provided legal advice to the Board during a closed session concerning the case of Sawyers vs. Walts.

McGowan also played a role in defending the school board in a more than three-year-old legal battle between Sawyers and Patriot High School Principal Micheal Bishop stemming over a youth baseball league.

Sawyers was absent from the regularly scheduled school board meeting on Wednesday, citing a family emergency. Despite calls from Occoquan District School Board Member, and Vice Chairman of the School Board Lillie Jessie not to hold a vote due to Sawyers’ absence, the board voted to let McGowan keep her seat.

“It’s detrimental to the school board not to have division counsel up here, with access to Board Docs [the online agenda and school board records system]. If someone gets removed from the dais, it should be the action of the School Board, not one member,” said Gainesville District School Board Member Alyson Satterwhite.

McGowan called the matter a distraction.

“I don’t think there is any question that I can be more effective on the dais,” she told the school board members. “I am disturbed this issue sidetracked the board from its current business.”

Woodbridge District School Board Member Lorree Williams abstained from the vote.

“We do not do things together, and this will continue the divisiveness [among school board members],” said Williams.

“I don’t like the idea of [Sawyers] not being present to make a decision,” said Jessie, who voted to keep McGowan on the dais. “I make my own decisions. Sometimes I agree with the chairman, and sometimes I don’t.”

The infighting comes as the School Board is set to add a student representative to the mix sometime in mid-October. The student will also have a seat alongside other school board members on the dais.

Sawyers is seeking higher office and is a Democrat running against longtime Republican Congressman Rob Wittman (1st District).

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