Cooperation in following the requirements of the Open Meeting Law is very important for school board members. School districts depend upon members of their governing boards and other committees to maintain compliance with the law. The public’s trust in its school districts and the officials who govern them is at stake.
Board members should take the time to read the law and retain a copy for future reference.
To request an Open Meeting Law training, contact Chris Thomas, Chris Thomas, ASBA General Counsel, Associate Executive Director.
Open Meeting Law FAQs
Arizona’s Open Meeting Law (OML) requires that public bodies be specific as to what will be discussed, considered or decided at a meeting.
“Discussed, Considered or Decided”
As stated above, the OML says boards must be specific as to the agenda items covered at the meeting; moreover, the OML says that the agenda should state what the board will do with each item – discussed, considered or decided. This means that if a board agenda item is listed for “discussion” and there is no reference that the item might be subject to some action by the board, the board is precluded from taking action on that item. Because of this some boards have put all items as “subject to possible action.” This strategy certainly covers you from a legal standpoint, but I caution using it on controversial items that you have no intent of acting on that meeting. After all, you don’t want to panic your public if a decision on the item is months away or if the matter really isn’t a serious proposal at all, but just something that the board is exploring.
The Person Off-the-Street Test A.R.S. §38-431.02(H)  I don’t think that if the agenda states that the agenda item is subject to “action” that action must be taken, only that it is possible that action will be taken; in that regard, listing something for “possible action” is the same as saying it is an “action item” without noting that action may not be taken.
Many of the topics that are discussed in school district governing board meetings are complicated. Oftentimes, a board agenda item is up for decision only after the matter has been exhaustively discussed in many other meetings and because of which, the board and the administration have an intimate familiarity with the issue. It is because of this, and a general penchant for brevity, that board agendas often contain shorthand descriptions as to items to be considered — descriptions that while understandable to the board, administration and even the school staff, are not understandable to the average person without insider knowledge. I don’t think that school districts do this on purpose, it just happens. However, boards and administrators should know that an agenda item that is not sufficiently descriptive to inform the average, off-the-street person as to what is to be discussed, considered or decided is a violation of the OML. This is best conveyed through example.
Suppose that the board would like to talk about the alleged inequities between the girls athletic programs with the boys athletic programs. Would the following descriptions work in accurately describing that discussion:
- Discussion of District Athletic Programs
- Sporting Equipment Report on Boys and Girls Athletic Programs
The answer to each of the above is “no,” the agenda item is not descriptive enough for the discussion. On the first example, the agenda description is far too broad, not giving any detail to let the public know what is really the focus. On the second example, we have a problem of narrowness that may preclude broader discussion that the board would like to have – what if the issue includes apportionment of coaches or court/field time? A better description that covers the item would be the following:
- Discussion of District Athletic Programs With Regard to Correct Share of Resources Between Boys and Girls Sports
Remember the off-the-street person in making your agenda. That is certainly the perspective that the Arizona Attorney General’s Office will take in determining whether you broke the OML. Some other things to avoid, in order to keep the person off-the-street perspective:
- Don’t use “legaleze” – don’t simply refer to a statute by cite or even by name, if that name is not commonly understood.
- No acronyms! Education-types love acronyms – NCLB, AYP, FAPE, CSF, ADM, 504…the list goes on and on. Remember your public is not familiar with these terms, even if you are!
Policing Your Agenda – A Must
Okay, assume you have a sufficiently descriptive agenda that captures exactly what you want to talk about. You’re done, right? NO! The most important thing under the OML with regard to agendas is sticking to what is written on the agenda! It is so easy for a board to get off track in its discussion when peripheral issues are brought up that relate to the matter at hand and then…pretty soon that peripheral issue becomes the topic of discussion. This is a violation of the OML. It may be one without intent, but a violation is a violation. It falls to each member of the board and the administration to constantly remind themselves that they must keep their discussions within the confines of the stated agenda description. I suggest to boards that they appoint – not formally but rather suggest informally – that one person be the designated “watch dog” to ensure that the board stays on its discussion point. (That doesn’t absolve the rest of the board or administration from paying attention of course!) It is one method to make sure an honest mistake doesn’t result in a significant violation and yes, money out of everyone’s pocket.
The Open Meeting Law can be difficult to understand and onerous at times to comply with – however, reminding yourself why it is there might make it easier for you. The public body governing board is there to do the public’s business in public. The public has a right to witness the discussion, deliberation and decision-making done in its name. Public confidence in our governing process is critical and complying with public accountability measures like the OML gives the public body the credibility they need to govern. Most importantly, it is that credibility that gives you the license to do the work you signed up for when you ran for the school board – to help give kids the best learning environment in which to fulfill their potential.
Arizona’s Open Meeting Law comprises only eight sections of Arizona statute. However, contained in that those sections are requirements that sometimes seem as complex as anything found in an Internal Revenue Service manual. In the 2000 legislative session, the Open Meeting Law was substantially revised through consensus legislation sponsored by all state and local public bodies, the media associations and the Arizona’s Attorney General’s Office – three contingents that, in the past, had often been at-odds on interpretations of the Open Meeting Law. The reason the legislation was endorsed by all of these parties was its singular purpose: to give greater clarity to all concerned about the requirements of the law.
Now three years have passed and new questions have arisen – it appears to be the nature of this beast that when a solution is found for one query, three more will pop up. In the past six months, I have conducted over a dozen training sessions on the Open Meeting Law, and have taken note of all of the questions that are out there. One topic seems to get the greatest amount of attention: the Superintendent or Board Member Report. To try to settle some of questions that are out there, this issue has been chosen at this edition of Education and the Law.
2. The public body does not propose, discuss, deliberate or take legal action at that meeting on any matter in the summary unless the specific matter is properly noticed for legal action.”
The effect of this inclusion is to allow a board member or superintendent to provide a quick update on issues in which the regular notice requirements have not been met. As the statute clearly states, there is to be absolutely NO discussion on the item.
- the varsity basketball team just returned from an important tournament and the superintendent wishes to inform the board of the results;
- a board member attended the National School Boards Association Annual Conference and wanted to let the other board members know how it went (remember to watch the discussion!)
- an unanticipated discovery of important information such as new SAT-9 scores has been just received by the district (after the board agenda had gone out) and the Superintendent wants to inform the board members about how the district’s school did (in this instance the Superintendent should caution that this cannot be discussed at this time but it will be on the next agenda for discussion)
Part One provides a brief guide for school board members and other citizen leaders in public education. Part Two provides the text of the Open Meeting Law as of September 2010. Part Three provides the text of Chapter 7 of the Agency Handbook as prepared by the Office of the Arizona Attorney General, the primary enforcer of Arizona’s Open Meeting Law. The Agency Handbook was substantially revised in May 2001 and the insertion here reflects those changes.