Sunshine laws are regulations that require a certain level of openness and information from school boards. Sunshine laws establish a standard of transparency between school boards and the public constituents they serve.
The purpose of sunshine laws is to ensure that the government and its entities behave and accomplish business in an ethical way. Since public schools are part of the state government, school boards are obligated to comply with sunshine laws. The community that the school board serves has a right to know what is happening.
It is imperative for school boards to explore their state’s sunshine laws, as regulations vary by state. Regardless of how each state approaches sunshine laws, the main function of these policies is to make certain that the public is aware of the decisions being made on their behalf and the work that is being accomplished by their representatives.
Public Meetings and Sunshine Laws
A significant aspect of sunshine law regulations are policies regarding meetings. It is important to know how your state defines a meeting. In Ohio, any “prearranged discussion of the public business of a board of education, committee or subcommittee by a majority of its members.” No matter what the meeting may be called (e.g. work session, study group, retreat, etc.), if it meets the definition set by your state it is a meeting and should follow the guidelines established by sunshine laws.
The school board should issue notice of the time and place for regular school board meetings. For any special meetings, the board should provide notice of the time, place, and purpose of the meeting. Some states may require a length of time by which notification must have been made (e.g. 24 hours, etc.) to the public and to board members prior to the meeting date.
Leveraging the right technology, it can be easy to have board meeting information set up as events that are constantly available on the school board’s website. Any special meeting notifications may also be made through board management software.
Executive Session Meetings
Every state has reasons that an executive session board meeting may be called, some states greatly differ from others in these reasons. Purposes for executive session board meetings may include specific personnel issues, setting strategies for bargaining or litigation, and budget cuts and exemptions. For these reasons, it is imperative that school board members are knowledgeable regarding their state’s sunshine laws.
For example, Texas’ sunshine laws permits executive session board meetings when a board may be meeting with their attorney regarding litigation or a settlement offer, for deliberating personnel matters, discussing the purchase or lease of property, discussing certain financial contract negotiations, or discussing the deployment of security devices.
Maintaining and Sharing Meeting Documents
Documents and materials related to school board meetings are imperative to most sunshine laws. The purpose of meeting minutes is to provide an official and legal record of the school board’s activities and decisions. School board meeting minutes become official public record and, therefore, should be a document that constituents can easily access and understand.
The accessibility of meeting agendas, meeting minutes, and other related documents is not just imperative to pleasing constituents and maintaining transparency, but pertinent as they are a part of official public record. Just as meetings are required to be made public (check your state’s sunshine laws for details regarding these requirements), meeting minutes must be made available for public review.
Some states even have time requirements by which the school board meeting minutes must be made public. For example, in Illinois, school board meeting minutes must be made available to the public within ten (10) days after the school board has approved them. If an Illinois school district has a website, the minutes of open meetings must be posted on the website within ten (10) days of the approval of the minutes, and those minutes must continue to be posted on the website for at least sixty (60) days after their original posting.
Utilizing board management software, meeting documents can be easily accessed and maintained in one streamlined location. Access to recordings of board meetings, attachments to meeting agendas, and other related materials and information can be easy and efficient.
Sunshine Laws and Technology
For many states’ sunshine laws, school board meetings take place when a quorum is met. So, it can be assumed that whenever a quorum is met (in any setting), sunshine laws are in effect. This can apply to boards who use electronic communication, as well.
For a school board to have a private conference call where a quorum is present would be a violation of sunshine laws. If the board is engaged in a real-time chat, e-mail exchange, or group texting, this would qualify as a meeting. While it can be tempting to utilize technology like e-mail or conference calls to discuss what may seem like unimportant business, it can be a major violation of sunshine laws.
Sunshine laws outline a great amount of regulations for how school boards conduct meetings and other business, so it is imperative that school board members are abreast of these regulations. Utilizing a board management software, materials regarding the state’s sunshine laws can be shared within the portal for continuous reference.
The right technology can simplify the school board’s responsibility to abide by sunshine law. By providing access to school board meeting information and documents (agendas, minutes, and related materials), a board management software can maintain all of this pertinent information in one seamless location that is easily accessible by school board members, administrators, and the public.
Sunshine laws can seem intimidating, but knowledge and awareness of these policies can empower school boards. The purpose of these regulations is to ensure that school boards conduct meetings and business in an honest, open, and ethical manner.
School board members serve as advocates and representatives for their community, and it is imperative that the public knows about the business being accomplished by the school board. A community of trust and transparency is encouraged when school boards fulfill their responsibilities guided by sunshine laws.