Virginia elections bills killed in committee

VIRGINIA — Even before they were allowed onto the floor for consideration, the Virginia state legislature in January and February killed three bills that would have made public the results of state public school student elections.Two House bills sponsored by Rep. Robert Hull (D-Falls Church), would have required school officials to disclose the results of school-wide student elections. They died in their committees by votes of 16 to 4 and 17 to 5.The third bill, sponsored by Sen. Warren Barry (R-Fairfax), passed the Senate earlier in February by a vote of 39 to 1. It then went to the House Education Committee, where it was kept from the House floor by a vote of 13 to 8.School officials had fought the Senate bill, and members of the committee in charge of sending the bill to the House floor reportedly said the issue was not important enough to justify interfering with a school’s internal policies.The results of student elections in Virginia are currently confidential thanks to a state supreme court ruling last September that exempted the results from the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.The bills were introduced after Lucas Wall, the former editor of the Centreville High School Centreville Sentinel, sued the Fairfax County School Board for access to the results of school elections.Wall had requested the vote totals received by each candidate during one 1995 election that included the students who would select the student representative to the county board of education. The school’s student government adviser and principal refused to turn over the results, saying the results were exempt from the state law and would humiliate those who did not win the election.The chairman of the board, Kristen Amundson, spoke against the bill, telling the Fairfax Journal in February “It is important for school administrators to have the discretion to protect the privacy of students as a means of encouraging more students to participate.”Wall disagrees. He asked state legislators the following in an electronic mail message: “What principles does the General Assembly want taught in our schools? Do you want young people being taught by their teachers and administrators that secret elections are a good thing? Or do you want them taught and shown the principles our Commonwealth and our nation were founded on?”Despite his disappointment over the dead legislation, Wall remains hopeful that the state legislature will change the freedom of information law when it hears a subcommittee report on the issue in 1998, and will narrow the existing exemption for records used in the state supreme court case. But because of the ruling, and because all three bills have been defeated, he says there is not much left to do.Wall lost the case before the state supreme court in September. The court said that the records sought were exempt from the state law because they were “scholastic records,” which are defined as “materials containing information about a student.” Because the election results do contain information about identifiable students, they fit the definition of scholastic records, said the court.