Common Pitfalls in Open Meeting Law Compliance
Open meeting laws, or sunshine laws, are built to hold public entities — including your charter school governing board — accountable and transparent to the public.
Whether it’s the Brown Act in California, the District of Columbia Open Meetings Act, or any other name, the intent is the same. Even if the specifics vary.
Our recent webinar focused on the Brown Act, but the conversation reached into topics relevant to every charter school board in every state.
Nationwide, charter schools can be tripped up by how easy technology makes it to fall into serial communications.
Charter school boards nationwide can easily be tripped up by technology.
This is especially true for the risk of serial communication. In email, social media, or even Google Docs, there’s risk of stepping out of compliance.
- Hitting reply-all in an email? In short…don’t.
Clicking reply-all to an email sent to your board is a quick way to fall out of compliance.
If you need to email the board, be clear that your email is meant to be a one-way communication. Actually include something like, ‘one-way email, do not reply all, just for your information.’
Alternatively, you might include your board members in the BCC field. Then, they can’t easily reply-all. A reply would just go to the sender.
Note that, if a quorum of the board all individually replied to the one board member, you’re on your way still to being out of compliance. So be careful with serial communication in email.
- Working digitally with Google docs or other tools can be a help. But know the risks.
Certain documents, like your LCAP, might be stored and worked on collaboratively as a Google Doc.
It can easily be shared publicly, both to view and to comment. Because normally the public would weigh in through public comment at your board meeting, weighing in via comment on a shared doc can make sense.
Most likely, you won’t see a huge number of members of the public engage in your board’s work in this way. But it’s been made an option.
You can link to it in your agendas. You can talk about it in your meeting, noting that it’s a public document that allows the public to both view and comment. Just as board members can.
Still, there is risk any time that people are collaborating on the internet. Talk to your lawyer, talk to your authorizer, and make sure that what you’re doing is indeed working for your specific needs.
- Be aware of situations where the law hasn’t necessarily caught up to or gotten specific about the technology.
Most likely, your state’s open meeting law doesn’t specifically name tools like Google docs. It hasn’t quite caught up to the reality of how board work is being done. And of course, technology is always changing.
In those situations, ask yourself: Could you lose sleep over this? Could you stand in front of a judge and say that you were hitting the spirit of transparency and access?
- If your state’s law names an integrated agenda management platform, know for sure that your tools measure up.
BoardOnTrack is what’s known in California as an integrated agenda management platform.
A lot of boards have gone paperless or are moving in that direction. Brown Act or otherwise, open meeting law compliance for the 21st century includes electronic board software and tools that help the operations of the boards be more organized and streamlined.
But whatever system you’re using must check all of the boxes. The Brown Act actually spells out the difference between what is and is not a true integrated agenda management platform.
And at BoardOnTrack, we take pains to make sure that we live up to the standards of the Brown Act. It’s really the high bar of open meeting laws across the country. And so we know if we live up to that most other states will be fine as well. Learn more about the tools we’ve built.
With our directory, it’s clear exactly who is on your board. And, exactly who is on each committee. Brown Act applies to committees as well. So you want to know exactly who’s responsible for what, in each role.
Our public portal connects to your website, in order to make the right things public, compliant, and transparent with the touch of a button.
And to meet stringent guidelines like the Brown Act, we provide both a link to your general about the board portal and a link that brings you to your next immediate current agenda. So that members of the public only have to click one button from your website to access your next agenda. That’s important.
Bottom line: your open meeting law is intended to enhance your board’s work and the public’s access to it.
Sometimes, boards can begin to feel bogged down by the requirements set forth by their state’s open meeting laws.
It’s best to maintain a mindset that the law is actually helping, not hindering, your work.
Governing transparently shows the public the way you’re handling hard decisions.
You want people to know that this is hard work that isn’t taken lightly. You want parents and families to be able to see your board navigating tough decisions.
Especially if you’re operating in a climate where the public may be inclined to be more adversarial towards charter schools in general, transparency should strengthen your governance and your school’s standing in the community.
What’s more, governing transparently ensures your board can make decisions and move on with its work. It legitimizes your process.
Transparency isn’t about every member of the public agreeing with every decision you make. But about the public having access to the process you followed to get to that decision.
It’s designed to let people have access and inform themselves and weigh in with their opinion. While still ensuring that the board at some point can make a decision and safely move forward.
Finally, there are real legal consequences for noncompliance.
This shouldn’t be the reason your board operates transparently. But it can’t be ignored, either. There are real legal consequences for your board and your charter school — and potentially the people counting on that school — should you fail to comply with your state’s open meeting laws.
Like a lot of things we talk about at BoardOnTrack, knowledge plus action equals results. Once you understand what needs to get done, you can pick the right tools and take the right actions, and have confidence that your board’s work will deliver the right results.
Could your board do better with open meeting law compliance?
Or would you just like to see how we make compliance easy? Join the next demo — or schedule your own time with the team.
Learn more about open meeting law compliance
Sam Falk was the Chief Customer and Product Officer at BoardOnTrack and is based in Concord, Massachusetts.