Virginia's Freedom of Information Act is quite clear: Except in certain limited instances, meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. The law's intent is also clear: Public officials cannot do public business in secret. The Fairfax County School Board has been accused of multiple violations of the state's open meetings law, as well as its own strategic governance rules, according to a lawsuit filed Jan. 7 in Fairfax County Circuit Court by Patton Boggs attorney Benjamin Chew. School board members allegedly exchanged secret e-mails about matters under discussion during public meetings regarding the closure of Clifton Elementary.

One of these e-mails, dated June 15, 2010, which surfaced as a result of FOIA requests by Clifton resident Jill DeMello Hill, show school board member Liz Bradsher -- whose Springfield district includes Clifton -- brazenly coaching members of a West Springfield High School parents' group on how to advance in FCPS' renovation queue by lobbying board members to close Clifton. "If we decided to close Clifton, your bonding could be moved [up two years] to 2011," Bradsher tells members of the parents' group.

At the board's June 28 public hearing, which lasted until 1 a.m., 149 county residents passionately testified to keep their community school open even as board members were busy exchanging private e-mails.

Board member Stuart Gibson of Hunter Mill even chastised the development director of a nonprofit that runs a family shelter near the school, warning her that it was "highly inappropriate for your organization to be lobbying the school board on this issue."

Talk about highly inappropriate. During the school board's July 8 public meeting, Dean Tistadt, the school system's chief operating officer, secretly e-mailed board members a report that found nothing wrong with the school's supposedly contaminated well water. The expense of fixing the water problem was one of three main arguments made for closing the school. This report completely eliminated it.

Yet according to e-mail transcripts, board Chairwoman Kathy Smith of Sully, Tessie Wilson of Braddock, and Patricia Reed of Providence -- who was participating from a remote location even though she was officially listed in the board minutes as "absent" -- discussed posting the water report before the vote with school board clerk Pamela Goddard.

"It can wait until tomorrow!" Wilson says. "I checked with Kathy and she agrees. GOOD GRIEF! Does she not realize we are in the middle of the meeting?" Without publicly divulging the explosive contents of the water report, the board then voted 9-2 to close Clifton without any plan for relocating its 369 students.

Besides Smith, Wilson, Bradsher, and Gibson, board Vice Chairman Brad Center of Lee, Ilryong Moon, at large, Jim Raney, at large, Dan Storck of Mount Vernon, and Jane Strauss of Dranesville voted to shutter the school.

"In effect, the school board pretended to conduct an open meeting while it simultaneously, by e-mail, discussed the same matters in a secret 'closed' session,' " the lawsuit alleged, asking the court to require FCPS to post all withheld e-mails pertaining to the vote on its Web site, hold a "properly noticed public meeting to reconsider the closure in accordance with its own policy (1501.3) to conduct its business in public, and schedule a re-vote.

On Tuesday, the lawsuit was voluntarily withdrawn before trial because representatives of the Fairfax County Public Schools and the school board are still refusing to provide documents requested under FOIA. If board members are allowed to get away with ignoring Virginia's open meetings statute, they will never again conduct controversial public business in public.

So besides demanding a do-over of the Clifton vote, voters should do-over the school board as well.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.