How do you stay informed without knowing what your board of education is up to? And how do you know what your board is up to if you don’t receive the proper notification and an idea of what will be discussed in advance of their board meetings?
Most, but not all, boards post the time and date of their board meetings on the district’s web site. Some boards file their meeting dates with the Secretary of State’s office (even though they aren’t required to do so!). Some boards post their agendas online. Some local boards are even posting video of their board meetings to allow more of us to be in on the discussion.
The foundation of knowledge begins with notice and agenda.
Meetings. Any time the board meets to discuss items upon which it will vote.
Notice. The acknowledgement to your community that the board is holding a meeting. The type of meeting determines the advance notice required.
Agenda. The written version of what the board plans to discuss. Any advance agenda would be in draft form as a board must approve the agenda before proceeding with the meeting.
The Alabama Open Meetings Act
The Alabama Open Meetings Act (OMA) lays out specific requirements for notifying the public about school board meetings.
The foundation of the OMA is this:
The Deliberative Process of governmental bodies shall be open to the public during meetings [as defined by this Act]. Except for executive sessions . . . or as otherwise expressly provided by other federal or state statutes, all meetings of a governmental body shall be open to the public and no meetings of a governmental body may be held without providing notice [as defined by this Act].
No executive sessions are required by this Act to be held under any circumstances. Electronic communications shall not be utilized to circumvent any provisions of this Act. (The Open Meetings Act – A Manual for Public Officials, 2005)
Not to get too far off track, but here’s what the OMA says about deliberation:
- Any “exchange of information or ideas among [the] quorum” that is “intended to arrive at or influence a decision” as to how the body members should vote on a specific matter.
- The matter discussed by the quorum can be an issue before the body at the current meeting or “at a later time”; or,
- Any discussion during a meeting about any issue that members expect to be before the body at some point in time should be conducted openly unless the body can go into executive session.
It’s that quorum thing that seems to be the stickler for a lot of boards. Another discussion for another time….
Types of Notice – Timelines
7-day notice – Any prearranged meeting the board is required to hold by law. Generally, these are the Regular Meetings set by the board.
The law requires city boards to hold an annual meeting but states the board will set their meetings prescribed by the bylaws. (Ala. Code§ 16-11-5)
County boards are required by law to hold five meetings plus an Annual meeting. (Ala. Code§ 16-8-4)
1-day notice – Notice of prearranged body meetings to exercise the body’s powers to possess or approve the expenditure of public funds. Any meeting, whether or not it is prearranged to discuss expenditure of funds or to deliberate matters expected to come before the board at a future date.
1-hour notice – This is reserved for resignations and emergency meetings. An emergency meeting is defined as where waiting 24 hours would be prevented by emergency circumstances requiring immediate action to avoid physical injury to persons or damage to property.
Minimum Requirements Versus Best Practice
A word of caution: boards are trained about minimum requirements of the law.
The OMA should not be seen as requiring minimum effort. The OMA sets a minimum bar.
Keeping the community in the loop with regard to what the board is discussing at public board meetings should be a high priority for any board hoping to engage and build trust with their school community.
What Notice Requires
Many boards believe that the notice given at the end of a current meeting announcing when the next meeting will be held is adequate notice. It is not.
The OMA requires that local school boards post notice of each meeting seven days in advance on a bulletin board at a place convenient to the public in the central administrative office of the board.
The OMA requires that notice must be given to the public and special notice is to be directed to any person who has registered to receive direct notices from the board.
Posted notice pursuant to this section shall include the time, date, and place of meeting. If a preliminary agenda is created, it shall be posted as soon as practicable in the same location or manner as the notice given pursuant to this section. A governmental body may discuss at a meeting additional matters not included in the preliminary agenda. If a preliminary agenda is not available, the posted notice shall include a general description of the nature and purpose of the meeting.
If the meeting is postponed or canceled, a notice of the cancellation should be posted in the same place and the change should be distributed through the same list.
Many boards now give interested citizens an opportunity to sign up for notifications and agendas through email. If your board is not currently allowing for that, you might want to mention this possibility. Summer is a good time for setting up new procedures.
What Agenda Requires
Any agenda that is provided should be as complete as possible, though complete does not mean detailed. Boards differ in the level of detail provided in a draft agenda.
When the board is sent their “packet” to consider for the board meeting, the agenda is basically set. At that time, a draft agenda could be prepared and posted on that bulletin board, on the district web site, and distributed via email to those who have requested notice.
Topics of discussion can be bullet points, but there should be no surprises for the public at the board meeting. This means that no topics should be added to the agenda after distribution of the draft and prior to the meeting unless absolutely unavoidable.
No highly-charged topics (e.g., firing a superintendent, approving a bus fee structure) should be added without plenty of notice being given to the public and redistribution of the agenda with whomever it was initially electronically shared.
A draft agenda can certainly be amended at the meeting, but should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
If Proper Notice and/or Agenda Are Not Provided….
You may be able to contest it in court. An OMA lawsuit must be filed within 60 days of when the plaintiff first became aware of the violation. The suit must be filed within 21 days if the plaintiff seeks to have the vote nullified.
If a violation is found, remedies available include declaratory judgments, injunctions, invalidations of actions taken during the meeting held in violation of the OMA and civil penalties up to $1,000 per board member. That penalty is only available if board members are paid for their service.
Attorneys fees can be awarded to the person filing suit as well.
Lawsuits can be avoided if boards and school district officials work to keep communities informed. While the OMA sets a minimum bar, boards are certainly allowed to go above and beyond those minimum requirements to keep their communities engaged in the important work of educating our children.
This Is Not Legal Advice
Please do not consider this to be legal advice. If you believe your board has violated the OMA, you should consult an attorney. The purpose here was to give you an idea of what you should expect from your board and school officials by way of notice and agenda.
BTW, the image is a screenshot of eBoard Solutions iPad app. It’s free. All school districts that use eBoard Solutions are available on the app.