What Is The Brown Act?
The Brown Act, the name of the California State Open Meetings Act, is a law centered around charter school governance transparency to the public.
Basically, it states that virtually all work on behalf of the public must be conducted in open, public, and transparent sessions.
Brown Act legislation and its recent updates affect California charter school boards directly.
The Brown Act requirements cover a number of elements of your board’s operations. That includes where board meetings are held, and even what role employees can hold on the board.
The Brown Act requires that your charter school make certain board meetings and documents available to the public, within specific timeframes.
This applies to both charter schools and entities managing or operating charter schools.
For example, your charter school board must:
- make available to the public the time, place, and agenda for a regular meeting — 72 hours in advance
- post the next meeting’s agenda in a place that is freely accessible to the public
- post the next meeting’s agenda to the school’s website through a prominent link
- make available to the public any documents distributed to all or a majority of the board by any person are public records (that means your packet has to be available to the public, too)
Check out the specifics of the law here. Or learn more here. Or get additional guidance from your own legal counsel or experts like Young Minney & Corr.
What are the risks for California charter schools that don’t consistently comply with Brown Act regulations?
First, let’s be clear. This isn’t only about risk. Charter school work is done on behalf of the public. Charter schools are educating students on behalf of the public. And using public resources to do so. The spirit of the Brown Act is to ensure that California charter schools are transparent in how they utilize public funds to deliver on their charter promises.
However, there are real risks to charter schools whose boards or individual board members don’t comply with Brown Act regulations.
Charter schools that don’t comply have increasingly been the object of scrutiny and criticism of school districts and members of the public, including teachers, parents, and others.
In certain cases, a lack of transparency compliance has even been used as an argument to decrease or remove funding, to not renew charters, even clawback of PPP loans.
For example: If your board takes a vote at a meeting where you’re found to have not followed Brown Act requirements, your vote can actually be nullified. That can have major implications for your charter school, and for the kids, parents, and staff counting on your school.
California is an environment that’s particularly fraught for the charter school community. The climate between charter schools, districts, and some members of the public, can be considered contentious. And, as your charter school grows, public scrutiny also grows, making it even more important that you remain consistently compliant.
“As we’ve grown, we’ve become more of a target, we’ve been more at risk. BoardOnTrack has helped. The public easily sees upcoming meetings and past minutes. When questions arise around transparency, we can just point them to our website,” says Frances Teso, Founder & CEO of Voices College-Bound Language Academies.
Individual charter school board members who violate the Brown Act can also be held liable.
As a charter school board member, you can be held personally responsible for violating the Brown Act regulations.
For instance, if you engage in a board discussion via phone or email that constitutes board business, that discussion should have happened at a board meeting that was held transparently in accordance with Brown Act requirements.
This doesn’t have to make it impossible for your board to communicate certain things when needed.
BoardOnTrack has a built-in posts feature that allows board members to engage in one-way communications.
Board members and other governance team members can update the board on important information, without engaging in an active discussion with each other.
For example, if you’ve been assigned a task related to a goal in your board goals dashboard, you can publish a post to update the board on your progress or to flag an obstacle you’re facing. The board, in turn, might know to discuss this at the next board or committee meeting, in order to ensure you keep making progress toward your goals.
Technology such as email, text messaging, and social media, can make it even easier for board members to inadvertently enter into conversations that break Brown Act compliance.
How to train your charter school board on Brown Act compliance
Everyone on the board has to understand Brown Act compliance practices, at least to a certain extent.
Even if you’re not the person actually posting your charter school board’s meetings, agendas, minutes, packets, or other documents for the public to see, you need to understand how to remain in compliance. In order to not inadvertently fall out of compliance.
At this point, pretty much every charter school board is receiving some sort of Brown Act training from a legal firm on an annual basis. But we’ve seen there are still some blind spots in understanding the regulations, and inconsistencies in following proper procedures.
What California charter schools most often get wrong about the Brown Act
Even charter school boards that are compliant as a full board are slipping up on their board committees.
Your board committees must follow the same Brown Act regulations that your board as a whole must follow.
BoardOnTrack is built to easily allow you to manage all of your board’s meetings and documents as well as all of your board committees’ meetings in documents, all in one place.
The same public portal that our members use to ensure their board meetings are visible to the public works for making sure that every committee meeting — and relevant document — is also visible to the public.
We’ve seen some other online governance platforms treat the board and each committee as separate accounts. Meaning, you have to sign up (and pay for) multiple accounts in order to ensure that your board and each committee are in compliance. That’s not how we do things at BoardOnTrack.
We know that strong committees are the engine of a strong board. And, in California, you cannot risk any of your committees falling out of Brown Act compliance. So we make sure nothing stands in your way.
Some charter schools decide to cobble together a solution using multiple tools.
This is incredibly time-consuming, not reliable, and will eventually increase your risk of falling out of compliance.
BoardOnTrack’s online governance platform is built to help keep you in compliance with the Brown Act (or any state’s open meeting law guidelines) easily.
When you set up your account, you actually customize your meetings process tab with key deadlines like when your agendas and minutes must be made available to the public, before or after your meetings. BoardOnTrack then provides you with alerts to keep you in compliance.
How BoardOnTrack Simplifies Brown Act Compliance
Most charter schools have general counsel to look to for specific guidance and training on Brown Act compliance. But this is usually outsourced consultative help.
Charter schools rarely have a person actually in your office, on your team, consistently available to your CEO, Chief of Staff, or Board for advice. Let alone vigilantly watch every board and board committee meeting, agenda, etc., for compliance. And of course, that level of access, advice, and vigilance with outside legal counsel will run a high price tag as the hours stack up.
However, the Brown Act provides for what is known as integrated agenda management platforms, such as BoardOnTrack.
BoardOnTrack meets the definition of an integrated agenda management platform. And we’ve made improvements to make Brown Act compliance even easier.
Publish a link to your next board meeting agenda
As part of the Brown Act requirements, California schools must have their upcoming agenda accessible to the public, on their website, in one click. If their next agenda isn’t available, their most recent one should be.
We’ve made this simple by creating a second link to your school’s public portal, which will bring users directly to your board’s current agenda.
Log into BoardOnTrack, click Settings, and you’ll find a link that brings website visitors directly to your board’s next agenda. Just embed this link to your current agenda prominently on your homepage.
Check out how Urban Montessori has done this, with a link under the Governance item in their website’s main navigation.
And if the next (current) meeting’s agenda is not published yet, you’ll see a link to view the most recent published agenda.
Publish the teleconference location in the notice and agenda of the meeting.
BoardOnTrack has a built-in Zoom integration to make publishing your teleconference location as easy as one click.
With our Zoom integration, all necessary information, including URL and telephone call-in numbers, will be pulled into your next meeting agenda.
And, if you don’t use Zoom, you can simply copy and paste the teleconference link into the appropriate field in your agenda as you build it.
Streamline agenda, minutes, and documents for board and committee meetings
BoardOnTrack streamlines and simplifies the creation, approval, and posting of your board and board committee agendas, minutes, and related documents.
Repetitive tasks are a thing of the past with standardized header and footer language.
And unlike other board management portals, we don’t limit you to a certain number of meetings, committees, documents, or storage sizes.
Publish Video Recordings Of Your Meetings
It’s easy to upload audio and video recordings of your meetings to your Documents in BoardOnTrack.
What’s more, you can set up BoardOnTrack so that all recordings uploaded for a meeting will automatically show up on your public portal.
Or, choose to keep the recordings private to your team until you decide to make them public.
Publish other types of files related to your meetings, too.
Brown Act compliance for board committee meetings
You can configure your board so that you can see dashboard governance alerts and a full process page for your committee meetings too.
On your BoardOnTrack Dashboard and your Process page, you’ll receive alerts to help you complete the right tasks at the right time to stay in compliance.
Brown Act Compliance for Special Meetings
The Brown act (California’s open meeting law) has different publishing requirements for regular and special meetings.
Your BoardOnTrack administrator can now designate board meetings or committee meetings as Regular or Special.
When creating a meeting in BoardOnTrack, you can choose whether it’s a Special meeting.