Monday, December 21, 2015

Appellate ruling upholds intent of law,
rights of school boards

A case recently decided by the Fourth District Appellate Court involving Springfield School District 186 and the Open Meetings Act (OMA) reaffirmed the kinds of actions boards are allowed to take during a closed session. The ruling also confirmed that final action is only taken when a vote is held at a public meeting.

“This is an important decision for school boards,” said IASB General Counsel Melinda Selbee. “It means that during a validly conducted closed session, board members may continue to express their individual positions without fear they are taking impermissible final action. Activities in closed session like taking a straw poll or signing a document are permissible if the board later takes final action in a properly conducted open session. The critical fact is that the final vote is taken at an open session.”

IASB, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials previously filed an Amici brief on behalf of the Springfield school district during the appeal process. All three organizations cited the direct impact to their membership of the potential outcome of the court’s proceedings.

The appellate case originated after a circuit court in Sangamon County ruled against the Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor (PAC) and a reporter who filed the initial OMA grievance. The local reporter originally filed a complaint to the PAC after obtaining an initial draft of a separation agreement between the district and superintendent. That agreement was signed by six board members during a February 2013 closed session.

The reporter’s complaint stated that the signatures on the document rendered an agreement approved and the action constituted a violation of the Open Meetings Act. The board and its legal counsel discussed during closed session, however, that the agreement would be voted upon in public during its next monthly meeting on March 5, 2013.

The scheduled vote was included on the board agenda, which was accessible on the district website one week before the public meeting. The board also posted a complete copy of the draft agreement for the public to review before the meeting.

In upholding the original grievance submitted by the reporter, the PAC determined that the signing of the tentative agreement by six board members in closed session constituted “final action” and thus violated the OMA. In addition, the PAC later ruled that the public was not provided sufficient notice of the action to be taken at the March 5th public meeting and that the board failed to inform the public of the “key” or “pertinent” terms contained in the separation agreement.

The Amici brief and the appellate court’s recent opinion disputed the PAC’s findings, instead noting that the PAC decision defied the intent of the law. When the Illinois General Assembly crafted OMA it created certain exemptions that could be deliberated behind closed doors. Issues pertaining to contract separation agreements fall within that scope.

The PAC, in arguing that the signing of the agreement constitutes final action, belied the facts of the case. The board of education always intended, and indeed stated, that it would take formal action on the agreement at the next publicly scheduled board meeting.  Illinois law has established that the individual actions of a board member cannot bind an entire school board, and instead a board is “contractually bound only where it votes, as a body, at a board meeting.”

The outcome of the case could have created a number of issues that would have hampered normal board business. In addition to altering the definition of what constitutes “final action” and severely limiting the actions that can take place in closed sessions, the ruling could have put an undue burden on school boards to determine what constitutes “key” or “pertinent” terms that they must then inform the public about.

The Open Meetings Act does not use the words “key” or “pertinent” when describing what needs to be made public before a scheduled meeting. Instead, the statute states that “information that will inform the public of the business being conducted” must be posted for public review. The posting of the entire tentative agreement, which the district did, meets the criteria needed to remain in compliance with OMA.

“The Open Meetings Act only requires that the board advise the public about the general nature of the final action to be taken and does not, as the Attorney General claimed, require that the board provide a detailed explanation about the significance or impact of the proposed final action,” Selbee reiterated.

“IASB wishes to thank our lawyers in this case, James Petrungaro and Kevin Gordon, Scariano, Himes and Petrarca, CHTD,” Selbee added. “They wrote the brief without charge for the benefit of our members, and their outstanding work deserves high praise.”

A detailed explanation of the case, the Amici brief, as well as the full appellate court opinion, can be found on the IASB IASB website.