Superintendent investigation costs Prince William schools $110,000

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

An investigation into Superintendent Steve Walts’ use of his Twitter account has cost Prince William County Public Schools over $110,000.

The school division paid law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP a total of $110,776.50 for its investigation of complaints about Walts, according to documents from the division provided to InsideNoVa in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The law firm presented the results of its investigation to the school board in late July, but that presentation is confidential because it involves a personnel matter, school board Chair Babur Lateef told InsideNoVa on Tuesday.

“We wanted a full and thorough review and to get it on the newer technology like Twitter, it’s expensive work,” he said. “I’m confident with the work that was done by this firm.”

Earlier in the year, the county contracted Forensic Risk Alliance Inc. for a review of the Twitter account. The school division has not received a bill for that work.

On Aug. 13, Walts announced he will retire when his contract expires at the end of June 2021. The board discussed Walts’ annual evaluation in a special meeting July 28, but took no action to extend his contract.

In a public letter announcing his retirement, Walts said, “I am doing this now to ensure the School Board has the time to select the next great superintendent for Prince William County Public Schools.”

Walts was hired in 2005 and has a compensation package worth $444,779 a year, including all supplemental pay.

TWITTER CONTROVERSY
The school division launched an investigation in May after public reports of a complaint regarding Walts’ use of the Twitter account @SuperPWCS, including exchanging private messages with students at late hours.

Walts has said all use of the account was for official business and that the school system’s public information office also had access to the account.

Walts conducted more than 2,000 private conversations through the Twitter account, including more than 20,000 direct messages, mostly with students, according to the division.

After the Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted to request Walts’ Twitter messages from the prior 18 months, the school board hired Hunton Andrews Kurth and then refused to release the messages, in part due to the investigation.

In response to a FOIA request from InsideNoVa for a copy of the law firm’s report, school division staff said no physical report was provided. Sherry Clines, equity and employee relations specialist for the division, told InsideNoVa the law firm gave “an oral and visual presentation” with findings from its investigation to the school board.

In a statement July 23, after the briefing from the law firm, Lateef announced there would be a “range of responsive actions” regarding the school division’s policies and activities using social media. The information the school board received about the investigation around social messaging with students would be reviewed with the administration, including Walts, Lateef said at the time.

On Tuesday, Lateef said he expects the division to develop proposed policy changes over the next month, but reopening schools during the pandemic is currently the division’s top priority.

The school division is also facing a $2.3 million defamation lawsuit in response to a video Walts posted on Twitter in May to defend himself against the complaints.

In the video, Walts said he only used the account for official business and contended the complaints were a political attack by his critics. Former school board chair Ryan Sawyers filed the lawsuit last month, claiming Walts defamed him in the video, which has since been deleted.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

 

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