The Richmond School Board has voted to alter its immunity from lawsuits filed by one of its former employees, a move that may legally expose one of its board members.
The School Board voted earlier this month in closed session to allow its former director of finance and operations, Tom Sheeran, to sue individual board members, according to board members who spoke on condition of anonymity.
As the elected officials of a governing body, School Board members are protected from certain legal actions, particularly statements made or actions taken during public meetings or in the course of their public duties.
The only likely result of the recent vote, according to one member, was to expose its most outspoken member, Carol A.O. Wolf, to Sheeran's legal challenges.
"It was ridiculous because it doesn't gain anything," says one of the anonymous board members who attended the meeting. "If Tom Sheeran sues any of us individually, the precedent is that [the board's immunity] is going to cover the individual anyway. We were acting within the scope of our duties until it is proven otherwise."
Sheeran tendered his resignation Nov. 19 -- effective this March while under fire by various board members for his involvement in the move of the school system's information technology department out of City Hall in the summer. That move cost as much as $700,000 nearly a third more than the cost of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's failed attempt to relocate the School Board's central office a few months later.
The School Board's action came at the request of Sheeran's lawyers, who asked for the immunity exception as a proposed alteration to Sheeran's separation agreement with the school system.
Wolf and board Vice Chairwoman Lisa Dawson were absent when the board voted on the immunity issue. Over the years, Wolf has questioned and criticized the finance director's handling of everything from the school system's investment portfolio to the bungled finances of the Richmond Education Foundation.
The latest legal maneuver comes a few weeks after Sheeran's lawyer asked the School Board for an additional $25,000 in severance pay and notified board members that Sheeran may pursue additional legal action. Former School Board member Reggie Malone has called the demand tantamount to extortion, noting that Sheeran knows where "every dead George Washington would be buried" and that a lawsuit could reveal many embarrassing details of school finances to the public.
The decision to allow Sheeran to sue individual members, however, may not hold much water legally, says Bill Bosher, public policy professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and former state superintendent of schools.
"I don't think school board members, who are constitutionally driven, can alter their immunity," Bosher says. He questions whether a vote by the board undercuts the Virginia Constitution, which protects public officials: "What they're doing is throwing one of their own under the bus."