How does the Texas Open Meetings Act apply to school boards?
Response from “Ask Former Trustees – Clear Creek ISD Chapter”: Joanna Baleson, Ken Baliker, Jennifer Broddle, Bob Davee, Glenn Freedman, Ann Hammond, Charlie Pond, Page Rander, Dee Scott, Win Weber
According to Texas Attorney General, all public meetings are subject to the Open Meetings Act (1967, with many amendments). The Act “was adopted to help make governmental decision-making accessible to the public.
It requires meetings of governmental bodies to be open to the public, except for expressly authorized closed sessions, and to be preceded by public notice of the time, place, and subject matter of the meeting.
The provisions of [the Act] are mandatory and are to be liberally construed in favor of open government.” (p.4) (https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/sites/default/files/files/divisions/open-government/openmeetings_hb.pdf) (Note: All quotes are from this document)
School board meetings are considered public and subject to the Act, as they engage in the public’s business and their meetings are considered regular, special, called meetings. In addition, any time there is a quorum of the board present and conducting business, that gathering, however informal, is subject to the Act. (p. 22) People may ask what happens if a quorum of the board is present at a social function or sporting event, for example. This is a murky area. If public business is discussed, then the gathering is subject to open meetings provisions. If no public business is discussed, then the Act is not applicable. (p.24)
Exceptions to the Act
There are exceptions. Committees of the board, with less than a quorum, do not need to be posted nor open. However, when a “governmental body appoints a committee that includes less than a quorum of the parent body and grants it authority to supervise or control public business or public policy, the committee may itself be a “governmental body” subject to the Act.” (p.18)
Another exception applies: If the school board appoints an advisory council, it is not subject to the Open Meetings Act, if it “does not control or supervise public business or policy…” This applies even if its membership includes some board members, but less than a quorum. (p. 19) Interestingly, there is a gray area here, as advisory committee recommendations, if routinely accepted or rubber stamped, can be construed as public and subject to the Act.
One of the Act’s least understood provisions relates to executive sessions, also called closed sessions. School boards can meet out of the public eye in clearly specified situations, such as consultation with its attorney or in cases in which privacy is an issue, as delineated in the Act. (P. 51-66)
Technology adds an additional complexity to the Act. For example, use of email, phones, video conferencing or other related means to have a quorum discuss or conduct business, even though not together physically, still must abide by the Act including posting. In addition to being open, the meeting must be archived. (p.25). The pandemic created a need for virtual meetings, but the Act’s provisions still apply.