Youngkin refuses to disclose teacher tip line submissions
Megan Pauly and Ben Paviour reported this story
Gov. Glenn Youngkin recently launched a tip line to report teachers and schools for “inherently divisive teaching practices.”
Members of the media across the state – including VPM News – and community members have submitted public records requests for copies of emails and voicemails sent to the tip line so far.
But thus far, Youngkin’s office has fully withheld this information, claiming the records are exempt as the “working papers and correspondence” of the governor’s office.
The Department of Education has cited the same exemption in withholding a document from VPM that appears to instruct DOE officials on how to enforce Youngkin’s executive orders signed on his first day in office. The Word document, called “EA Instructions,” was sent by Ali Ahmad, Youngkin’s director of policy, to Youngkin’s counsel, Richard Cullen, and his advisor, Matt Moran on Jan. 18. The email came three days after Youngkin signed executive orders seeking to root out “divisive content” from schools and allowing parents to opt-out of local mask mandates in K-12 schools.
According to Ahmad’s email obtained by VPM, the document contains “a breakout of instructions included in the Governor's Day One Executive Actions.” The email was forwarded to several DOE officials outside of Youngkin’s Cabinet: Superintendent of public instruction Jillian Balow, assistant superintendent Elizabeth Schultz and deputy superintendent Dicky Shanor.
VPM has challenged DOE’s citation of the working paper and correspondence exemption. FOIA specialist Rebecca Westfall said that her office “is continuing to review this matter.”
Dina Weinstein, president of the Virginia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, says it’s disturbing that the governor’s office is not releasing information it has the discretion to release on the so-called tipline.
“Nothing is preventing the governor, Governor Youngkin, from releasing these records. He's making a choice to keep these records secret,” Weinstein said. “From a Society of Professional Journalists’ perspective, this is about the public's right to know the details and intention of the government as well as what is Governor Youngkin’s intention regarding this tip line?
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said she doesn’t agree with the administration’s decision not to release the records.
“It’s clearly something of intense public interest of all different interests and political stripes,” Rhyne said. “We need to know the substance of what people are complaining about.”
Rhyne also questioned whether other agencies could cite the working papers exemption on behalf of the governor.
Margaret Thornton, a former Virginia public school teacher, also requested copies of emails sent to the tip line and was denied.
“I am really concerned that this administration came in and said that they wanted to be transparent, they want transparency in schools,” Thornton said. “They want teachers to be posting their lesson plans and curriculum lists, but they won't in turn be transparent with their constituents. I find that very hypocritical.”
She says she’s also concerned about the chilling effect the tip line could have on educators currently working in Virginia.
“And so I wanted to know what sort of things were being reported to try to understand what legitimate concerns are out there,” Thornton said.
Virginia Press Association Executive Director Betsy Edwards shares Thornton’s sentiment and is urging the governor’s office to release the information to the press and public.
“It’s too bad that they’re not being transparent,” she said. “It’s really regretful. It’s not the way to start his [Youngkin’s] term.”
VPM reached out to the governor’s office to ask why these records are being withheld in their entirety, but they did not respond by time of publication.
We should disclose: Some VPM staff members are part of the Virginia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Virginia Press Association.