Fairfax County wants $35,000 to respond to FOIA on Virginia school’s links to Chinese military

Brig Cabe / Examiner  Thomas Jefferson High School has removed its Halloween decorations due to fire code violations. Annandale, Virginia. October 30, 2005.
Thomas Jefferson High School, Annandale, Va., Oct 30, 2005. Brig Cabe / Examiner

Fairfax County wants $35,000 to respond to FOIA on Virginia school’s links to Chinese military

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EXCLUSIVE — Fairfax County Public Schools is asking for nearly $36,000 to respond to a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request seeking information about an elite public school’s financial relationship with groups tied to China’s military.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, part of FCPS in Virginia, partnered with Tsinghua University High School, or TUHS, to assist it and China generally with adopting the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, and advanced lab research TJHSST is famous for. TUHS is closely tied to Tsinghua University, considered by the Pentagon to be a Chinese military university.

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The nonprofit group Parents Defending Education, which helped unearth the Chinese funding for TJHSST, filed a FOIA request this month asking for any correspondence from 2017 through 2020 containing more than two dozen phrases, including Tsinghua, Shirble, Ameson, Sean Zhang, Ambright, and Thomas Schools — all linked to TJHSST or its TJ Partnership Fund.

The TJ fund received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Tsinghua University as part of its agreement with TUHS. The TJ fund also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Ameson Education and Cultural Exchange Foundation, as well as the Chinese company Shirble, which were all led by men tied to China’s United Front Work Department, which manages Chinese government foreign influence campaigns.

Molly Shannon, the public records manager for FCPS, told PDE this week that “the preliminary search yielded 122,975 pages of potentially responsive email records.” She said, “FCPS estimates that it will require 1,026 hours of labor time to fulfill your request” and that “the estimated costs” were $35,910.

“This is an outrageous cost estimate provided by an American public school district regarding an acute matter of both national security and public integrity,” PDE President Nicole Neily told the Washington Examiner. “Sums like this are regularly demanded of parents who seek transparency and accountability about their schools, and it is little wonder that families are losing trust in the education system before our very eyes.”

The FOIA from PDE asked to search specific correspondence from FCPS Superintendent Scott Braband, FCPS board member Ricardy Anderson, TJHSST Principal Ann Bonitatibus, former TJHSST Principal Evan Glazer, TJHSST Assistant Principal Gary Grosicki, former TJ fund executive director Aristia Kinis, former TJ fund official Miriam Lamoreaux, TJ fund development analyst Anita Jo, TJ fund assistant principal liaison Volita Russell, TJ fund vice chairwoman Marilena Barletta, and TJ fund at-large director Cindy Gersony.

FCPS says that Virginia’s FOIA “guarantees citizens of the Commonwealth and members of the media access to the meetings of public bodies like the School Board and to inspect or copy public records.”

The DCist reported in June 2022 that FCPS had added $500,000 to its 2023 budget to deal with an increase in FOIA requests. The outlet said FOIA requests to FCPS had increased from 190 in 2016 to 381 in 2019 and then up to 633 in 2021.

The Virginia Education Department launched an investigation into the Virginia school controversy earlier in March following a Washington Examiner investigation into the saga.

Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera sent a letter to FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid, telling FCPS to “direct schools within your division to cut ties with CCP-linked partners” and said she had asked her department to “investigate the prevalence of such relationships between CCP-linked partners and local school divisions” across Virginia.

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The Virginia school said in November 2014 that TJHSST “will be partnering with” TUHS as the fund announced, “Tsinghua University made a $300,000 donation.” The Chinese university was dubbed a “Jefferson Founding Partner.” The TJ fund said, “Tsinghua University is interested in introducing a specialized STEM track in its network of high schools, including TUHS, and is hoping eventually to establish a Tsinghua International STEM High School in Beijing.”

FCPS has attempted to defend the arrangement between TJHSST and the Chinese entities.

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