Lisa Phelps, Mark Taylor Failed to Fully Comply with FOIA Request

by Adele Uphaus

Newly available text messages reveal the degree to which at least one Spotsylvania School Board member and senior school division leadership were involved in events that led up to and followed the volatile December meeting of the Riverbend High School swim team that resulted in the principal being placed on administrative leave.

The new text messages also show that School Board member—and former Chair—Lisa Phelps has not complied with a request under the Freedom of Information Act to provide text message conversations she had with Superintendent Mark Taylor, Deputy Superintendent Kelly Guempel, and others about the Riverbend High School varsity swim team.

Taylor also appears to have withheld text message records that were responsive to the request.

The records were requested by former assistant swim coach Theo Marcus and shared with the Advance. Marcus requested “personal email and text messages” related to the Riverbend varsity swim team from the following individuals:

  • Mark Taylor
  • Lisa Phelps
  • Kelly Guempel
  • School Board member April Gillesie
  • Riverbend High School Principal Xavier Downs
  • Riverbend Assistant Principals Bryan Lutterbie and Christine Rogucki
  • Riverbend Athletic Director Jesse Lohr
  • Varsity Swim Coach Rachael Adriani
  • Division Coordinator of School Safety and Security Marshall Keene
  • Executive Director of Secondary Schools Allen Hicks
  • Director of School Safety and Discipline Jeremy Siefker
  • Human Resources officer Chris Collier

As of last week, Marcus had received text message records responsive to his request from all individuals except for Phelps.

The messages that were provided by other respondents include conversations with Phelps and refer to receiving messages from her.

They also include conversations with Taylor that he did not provide.

In addition to revealing more about the involvement of senior school division officials, the latest batch of text messages show that by January 15, Taylor was looking through the division’s athletic handbook for a policy preventing personal communication between coaches and student-athletes, and that Guempel confirmed to him that no such policy exists.

“Mrs. Phelps is very concerned”

Text messages provided by Guempel show that Phelps asked him on December 19 for “support” at the meeting scheduled for the following day. The meeting was requested by swim team coaches and parents, who wanted clarity on whether there had been any formal allegations of inappropriate behavior on the part of the coaches.

As the Advance has reported (here, here, and here), one parent grew angry with Marcus and head swim coach Rachael Adriani in late November after they announced a new leadership model for the swim team that the parent considered “a slap in the face” to her child.

In December, the parent began to raise concerns to Riverbend High School administration about “the volume” of text messages between Marcus and her child.

The parent claimed to have been unaware of the text messages, despite having requested last year that Marcus mentor her child, sharing her child’s phone number with him, and praising Marcus repeatedly for his work with the swim team.

The parent had a personal relationship with Phelps and told Adriani in a text message last year that she and Phelps “talk often.”

According to the records provided by Guempel, Phelps texted him several times about the situation in the days leading up to the December 20 meeting. She suggested that the meeting was not necessary, stating “the parents have made an outcry to have the meeting,” that “the coach [Marcus] chose to step away and by doing so created this fallout,” and that the meeting “seems to be a distraction” from “valid concerns.”

The day after the meeting—which resulted in Downs being placed on administrative leave because he grew agitated while Adriani spoke—Phelps texted Guempel to accuse the “school division cabinet” of allowing “retaliation” against the student, who was removed from the team by Adriani for an unrelated reason. (The student was later reinstated.)

“Seems to be in the name of the new majority,” Phelps wrote to Guempel.

Taylor also reached out to Guempel on December 19 to inform him of the meeting. He referred to conversations he’d had with Phelps.

“Mrs. Phelps is very concerned about the texts & emails from the coach and his ‘demands,’” Taylor told Guempel.

In another message, he referred to a “flurry of texts from Lisa [Phelps] to me, copying April [Gillespie]” about the meeting.

Neither Taylor nor Phelps provided these text messages.

“No sign of inappropriate contact”

The messages Guempel provided also show that the day after the meeting, Taylor informed Guempel that he “spent about an hour on the phone” with the parent, who told him some things that “do concern me.” He said the parent—who watched the meeting via Google Meet—was “very strong and clear in detailing the inappropriate, aggressive and race-charged language” used towards Downs.

Williams, the Human Resources Director, told Guempel in later text messages that she specifically asked those who were at the meeting whether they heard this kind of language, and no one else reported that they had.

“I would also note that [Downs] himself did not report this in sharing with me and law enforcement the events of that evening,” Williams wrote to Guempel.

In the messages provided by Guempel, Taylor also refers to having talked with Phelps about Marcus’s tenure as tennis coach at Riverbend, which ended in June 2022, six months before Taylor became Superintendent. Marcus returned to Riverbend as assistant swim coach last year.

“Lisa is now recalling the tennis [the rest of this message is cut off],” Taylor texted to Guempel on December 19.

To Guempel, Taylor also referred to a text he sent to Phelps and Gillespie about Marcus before the December 20 meeting.

“Sent to Lisa and April: Same guy (former tennis coach). Sounds highly engaged and maybe demanding as a coach. Seems to want best for the kids and expects a lot from them. Principal [Downs] & AD [Lohr] interviewed all the kids. No sign of any inappropriate contact or inappropriate conduct by the coach. Parents unhappy with frequency of messages. Coach angry over baseless accusations of impropriety.”

Taylor did not provide this message as part of the FOIA request, nor did Gillespie or Phelps.

“Probably not in there”

Taylor did provide a text message conversation he had with Guempel on January 15. “I have taken a pretty good run through the SCPS athletic personnel handbook for 2023-24 and I cannot find any mention of communications between coaches and athletes. What am I missing?” Taylor asked.

Guempel replied, “Can’t recall that ever being an issue—probably not in there.”

Taylor responded, “Then, how are the coaches supposed to know that they are not supposed to text individual athletes in the middle of the night?”

(The Advance has not found any evidence of text messages sent by the coach to the student-athlete “in the middle of the night.”)

In a February 19 email to the Advance, Human Resources Director Amy Williams confirmed that the school has issued a document retention notice “regarding the varsity swim team during the 2023-2024 swim season at Riverbend HS.” 

The notice reminds school division employees of their responsibility to preserve emails, text messages, voice mails, audio records and other communication related to the swim team.

In a statement to the Advance, Marcus said, “Recently, we sent a letter to [Spotsylvania County Public Schools] expressing serious concern about FOIA non-compliance by several persons, including Board Members Lisa Phelps and April Gillespie, and former and current staff persons (Mark Taylor, on administrative leave, and Xavier Downs, status unknown). Our FOIA requests have been long-standing, properly tailored to matters of significant public concern, and reasonably scoped in time. We hope these persons will abide by the laws of the state that call for transparency in the management of the public’s business by producing the requested documents immediately.”

Managing Editor and Correspondent