The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office (“AG”) recently issued a disposition letter in response to a complaint filed by a patron alleging that a school district had violated the Open Meetings Act (“Act”). While the AG found that the school district complied with the Act, the disposition letter provides some good reminders to districts to make sure they continue to comply with the Act.
The complaint involved the Fillmore Central Board of Education. A patron claimed that the board had violated the Act in the following ways:
· Agendas lacked sufficient description to alert the public as to what would be discussed at the meeting;
· Meeting minutes were not published in the local paper;
· Meeting minutes were not posted on the board's website within 10 days of their meeting;
· The Board did not provide notice or an agenda when a board quorum toured facilities at two other school districts; and
· Meeting minutes lacked sufficient detail as to one agenda item.
Most of the patron’s complaints in this case were related to his inability to obtain current documents from the school’s website. The school district used eMeetings from the Nebraska Association of School Boards to place meeting notices, agendas, and minutes on its website for the convenience of the public. However, according to district policy, the website is not the official method of notifying the public of its meetings or for maintaining current agendas and minutes. Instead, public notice of meetings is given by publication in the local paper or posting in three places within the district, and current agendas and official meeting minutes are maintained in the superintendent’s office. Meeting minutes are not placed online until they are approved by the board at its next meeting. While the school maintained a current agenda for all meetings in the superintendent’s office at all times, current versions were not always uploaded online immediately after the agenda was updated in the office.
Agenda Specificity. The patron complained that when he visited the school’s website prior to two meetings, the agenda stated “Discussion Items, Information Item.” It appears the document he viewed on the website was an empty default eMeetings template. The official agenda in the superintendent’s office had been amended at least 24 hours before the meeting to include specific and detailed agenda items, but the eMeetings agenda was not updated simultaneously. The Attorney General’s Office found that official agenda items to be sufficiently descriptive as required by law, but warned that not updating the online agenda might be confusing for the public.
Publishing and Posting Meeting Minutes. The patron complained that the meeting minutes from one meeting were not published in the local newspaper at all and the minutes from another were not posted on the district’s website within ten days of the meeting. The Attorney General noted that the Act does not require that meeting minutes be posted on a website or published in a newspaper, so there was no violation. However, keep in mind that section 79-580 requires the board secretary to publish a “concise summary” of all “proceedings” within ten days of any regular or special meeting in a legal newspaper of general circulation in the district.
Meeting Minute Specificity. The patron complained that the meeting minutes lacked sufficient detail as to what was presented by the finance committee to the board regarding the salary for a future school principal. The Attorney General’s Office noted, “The Open Meetings Act requires that a public body document the ‘substance of all matters discussed,’ and does not require a transcription of the meeting.” In this case, the minutes reflected that the board approved the 2017-18 principal salary offer as recommended by the finance committee. The specific salary information was contained in the finance committee’s report that was available for public inspection at the meeting. The AG stated that a copy of documents discussed at the meeting must be available for inspection at the meeting, but the minutes are not required to reflect the substance of those documents. The board did not violate the Act.
Providing Meeting Notice and Agendas. Fillmore Central is considering a construction project, so the board wanted to tour recently-completed facilities at two other school districts. The patron’s final complaint was that the two meetings of the board at the other facilities were not properly noticed and agendas were not available for these meetings. Again, the patron only checked the school’s website. However, the school district posted notice of both meetings in three public places within the district as allowed by school district policy. The agendas for the meetings were included in the notices and also maintained at the superintendent’s office. The AG found no violation of the Act.
It is always gratifying to us to celebrate when our clients are successful in defending Open Meetings complaints. The way to do that however, is to carefully comply with the Act and to be aware of the AG’s recommended practices. In particular, we would encourage districts that use NASB’s online meeting software (now redesigned and renamed “Sparq Meetings”) to be particularly diligent to ensure that their use of the software is consistent with both the Open Meetings Act and your board’s policies under the Act. The new software allows boards of education to provide their attorneys with a Sparq login. That means it will be easy for district to obtain a quick legal check of any agenda items or other meeting documents about which they are uncertain.
If you have any questions about the Act, we recommend that you consult with your school district’s attorney or call Karen, Steve, Bobby, or Tim.