The Ins and Outs of Open Meeting Laws

What are open meeting laws?  What do they govern and what do they mean to a school board member?  To summarize open meeting laws mean that when you become a board member what you say about school business is no longer merely a reflection of your own opinion.  The statements you make come under the governance of open meeting laws.  Conversations that you may have had regularly before with people may now become a violation of your role as a board member.

Regular board meetings must be posted and advertised in advance to be in compliance with these laws.  This means anytime a quorum of the board gets together to discuss school business or business that could conceivably affect the school that notice has to be given to the public.  This does not mean every conversation with a quorum of the board is necessarily considered an official meeting but regardless it is governed by open meeting laws. In short some conversations should not be conducted outside of public meetings.  Meetings must be made open to the public but that does not make the meetings public meetings.  The public is merely invited to watch the proceedings.  The board can make the determination if it will entertain public comments and in what manner.  The purpose of this part of the law is to allow for the public to observe the functioning, discussion, and decision making of the board.

If a topic is considered public business, than it has to comply with open meeting laws.  The definition of public business is board and is stated as such: “all matters that relate or may foreseeable relate in any way to.. The performance of the public entity’s governmental functions, including any matter over which the public entity has supervision, control, jurisdiction, or advisory power; or … the public entity’s use of public funds.”  It’s important to note the “may foreseeable relate in any way to” section of this definition.  More simply, decisions by the board need to be transparent.

People having conversation.

People having conversation.

An important thing to note from this is that a quorum of the board is not restricted to a physical meeting of the board.  Telephone conversations, video conferences, or text chains could all be considered subject to open meeting laws.  This even applies to less than the quorum of the board meeting several times to discuss public business if collectively these small meetings would constitute a quorum.  For example if Joe goes to talk to Susie and Jack about the upcoming building project and then Jack goes and talks to Jill and Bob to discuss this same topic, then collectively a quorum of the board has met.  This could potentially be considered a violation of open meeting laws. This is why it is best for a school board to post its committee meetings, even if there is not a quorum of the board.  Agendas are not always required for these meetings but the general topics covered within should be conveyed in notices to the public.

If school board members are having conversations outside of a public meeting that are having bearing on the decisions being made by that board, an open meeting violation is likely to occur.  It’s fine to share information about what was discussed at a board meeting and give information about a topic to another board member.  What is against open meeting laws is making decisions about voting, narrowing down options, or engaging in deep discussion on board business outside of an open meeting. The purpose of open meeting laws is to give the public a chance to oversee the functioning, discussion, and decision making process of a governing body.  Actions that would hide these aspects of the governing body’s actions are very likely be in violation of these laws.

Executative Session

Executive Session

There are exceptions to open meeting laws.  These are instances when a board can go into an executive session.  These session still need to be posted.  Executive sessions must be advertised in advance with the topic that will be discussed.  One reason to hold an executive session is the discussion of confidential records, such as those pertaining to a student.  Another is nonrenewal, discharge, and suspension hearings for certified staff.  The decisions of these meetings need to be made at a public meeting but the discussion can occur in executive session.  A third reason for executive session is for attorney consultation and finally negotiations.  Negotiations meetings are only exempt if holding the meeting in an open public setting could result in an adverse fiscal effect on the bargaining or litigation position of the school district.  Regardless of the exception, votes and decisions can only occur during the open part of a public meeting.

To summarize, open meeting laws are about maintaining transparency in decision making.  Making sure people have access to the necessary information to see how a governing body operates is the intent of these provisions.  This is also why when you become a board member what you say in the public becomes a direct reflection upon the board you serve.  Knowing and following this information can help a board member do their part in demonstrating the competence of the board they serve on.

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