Thursday, November 8, 2012

School Law 101: open meeting law and ethics

Posting as we go...

Open Meeting law:
  • Most violations come from lack of information, not intent to violate
  • deliberations is communication among a quorum on any matter under the committee's jurisdiction
  • discussion of scheduling is ok
  • may not email your opinion to the rest of the committee, though a document can be sent out
  • this is true of a subcommittee, as well
  • efficiency takes a backseat to transparency
  • public notice must include everything that the chair reasonably foresees will be discussed
  • must include enough detail for public to understand
  • executive session must include which of ten reasons why you are going into executive session, including name of union negotiating with, in the posting of the session
  • public ratification of contracts
  • evaluation of superintendents is public, and all individual member's evaluations of superintendents are public documents
  • must convene in open session FIRST, roll call, and state when will come back, and it should be posted that way. It should not post as "executive session" then "public session." Entering is a roll call, leaving is a roll call, be sure roll calls are recorded. A majority of the BODY (not of the quorum) must vote to enter executive session.
  • summary discussion of every topic, such that a member of the public can read the minutes and have an idea of what the discussion was and how the decision was reached, including minority and majority opinion
  • particularly important for executive session, as that is all the public will ever see. Minutes needed of discussion
  • must include record of any documents used
  • increasing burden on the school committee after each cycle to show why you need to keep minutes of executive session private; must be able to demonstrate that there is a reason to withhold them; increasing burden to release them after each cycle
  • remote participation must be authorized by chief executive officer of the municipality (regional school committees may take their own vote). A quorum must be physically present; may not have a majority on the phone. Must be clearly audible to all in the room (on both sides). Only five reasons for not being there: illness, disability, emergency, military service, or geographic distance. Chair must be physically present. 
  • encouraged to look at AG's website. Training video, FAQ section, ways of contacting, 617-963-254 is their hotline
  • minutes should be approved "in a timely matter" INCLUDING minutes for executive session (may enter executive session to approve them). Minutes must be released, upon review, once the reason for executive session has expired. The chair has the ability to decide that minutes may be released. Redacting information regarding students or personnel discipline.
  • Caution about serial communication in email (A emails B; B emails C about A...). Be careful to keep your thoughts in the meeting.
  • A bit of discussion here about weighed votes on regional school
  • The public has an ABSOLUTE right to record the public session of a meeting. Chair should ask if anyone is recording; Chair is required to announce if anyone is recording.
  • Intentional violation (which means they can fine): specific intent (knew what the law was and intended to violate the law), ignorance of law (willful blindness), ignoring a previous warning from AG or a court. Fines have been issued in three cases. 
  • Conflict of interest law: to eliminate conflict of interest and appearance of conflict of interest for public officials and public employees
  • fines increased to $10,000
  • FAQ for public school teachers was recently posted
  • a full-time teacher cannot have an interest in a second matter in the school district for which he or she will be privately paid (thus a teacher cannot be paid by a private company for leading a trip abroad by a private company if they are signing kids up in their school) UNLESS exemptions apply. Teacher needs to fill out a form ahead of time, signed by the principal, approved by appointing authority. Also must file a form that no partiality of students on trip. MUST be done in advance of any action.
  • when there's a question, it's better to err on the side of caution.
  • no public employee can take advantage of his or her position to further any private interest: inherently cohersive 
  • a school-sponsored trip may have fundraisers, etc.Public agency has decided it is in the public interest. Must be approved, however. 
  • appointing authority always has the authority if the public benefit outweighs any personal benefit for it. Submitted in advance and approved in advance
  • PTAs are private, non-profit organizations, support district, decide their policy and to whom they are accountable.
  • Tutoring: tutoring by a teacher is ok only if certain conditions are met. Students or parents must approach teacher; teacher may not advertise; cannot be current student; cannot use any public resources (not using curriculum, must be off-site); district cannot have found that the tutoring is necessary (for example, as part of an IEP). If all tutors are listed somewhere public, teacher may be listed; disclaimer must be included ("not supporting any particular tutor")
And that's a wrap!

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