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School board dives into ‘Sunshine’ rules

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The rules that Ohio’s school boards must follow in conducting a district’s business can be tricky to navigate, David Lampe, a partner with the Bricker & Eckler law firm, told Yellow Springs school board members during a recent board work session.

With four new members and concerns about open meeting protocols, the five-person board invited Lampe to go over some of the ins and outs of a board’s legal requirements, particularly regarding the state’s Sunshine Laws. Bricker & Eckler serves as the district’s primary legal counsel, and Lampe noted that he personally has been involved in education law for more than 20 years. The two-hour work session, held Monday, Jan. 24, was livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel.

In his presentation, punctuated throughout by questions from board members, Lampe addressed the board’s roles and responsibilities as an elected body, the state’s open meeting mandates, public records and board ethics.

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Roles and responsibilities

The school board’s primary responsibilities include setting district policy, establishing goals for the superintendent and treasurer and evaluating the superintendent and treasurer in carrying out those goals, Lampe said.

“While you decide what the ultimate goals of the district are, your CEO [superintendent] and CFO [treasurer] take all necessary action to put those goals in place,” Lampe said, adding that members of the community often misunderstand the school board’s scope — and in some cases, board members do as well.

Lampe pointed to a document by the Ohio School Board Association, or OSBA, titled “Understanding your School Board.” The document, available on the OSBA’s website, notes that additional functions of a school board include approving student services, adopting curriculum, establishing budgets, being good fiscal stewards, creating community relations programs and acting in the best interest of the school district.

The OSBA also notes that the board additionally serves an “important” public relations role “as a link between schools and the public.”

Understanding what a school board does includes recognizing what it doesn’t do, Lampe said.

“Board members do not manage the day-to-day operations of a school district; they see to it that the system is managed well by professionals,” Lampe read aloud from the OSBA’s document.

Within the Yellow Springs board, its president also has specific roles, as detailed in the district’s policy book, Lampe noted. According to current policy, the board president functions as the official spokesperson for the board.

“So if the board needs to make a statement to the media or the general public, that comes through the board president,” Lampe said.

Board member Luisa Bieri Rios asked for more clarification on the president’s designation as the body’s spokesperson.

“If the board president decides that there is communication that they would like to release to the public on behalf of the board, would they reach out to the board to do that, would they need to make a decision about public communications within a meeting, or is that part of the role of the board president [as] spokesperson?” she asked.

Lampe said that while the policy allows the president to speak for the board, good practice would include approving statements in an open meeting.

“By approving it, it leaves no doubt in the public’s mind that this is the statement of the board,” Lampe said.

The president also assists the superintendent in preparing the agendas for board meetings and has the authority — as does the treasurer or any two board members -— to call a special meeting.

Open meetings

The essence of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws is that, with the exception of strictly proscribed executive sessions, all business of an elected body must be conducted in public, and the public must be notified at least 24 hours in advance. That includes work sessions and meetings of board-appointed committees, Lampe said.

Sunshine rules are applicable anytime a quorum — at least three members in the case of the school board — is present and discussing district business matters. Given those regulations, Lampe cautioned the board against discussing business in group emails, texts or conference calls, stressing that they save all business conversations for their public meetings.

“You can send out information. You can speak your mind [in board communications], but you run into problems when there is discussion,” he said.

In response to questions about attendance at board-appointed meetings, he suggested that no more than two members be present at committee meetings, even if only as observers, to maintain the propriety of the open meeting requirements.

He cited a case in Cincinnati where the city council was fined for skirting Sunshine regulations when members met two at a time with the mayor in a “round-robin” arrangement, and the mayor served as a conduit between the pairs.

Lampe said that the state allows 17 “delineated reasons” the board can go into an executive session, and the specific reason should be listed in the public record. Personnel discussions and the sale or purchase of real estate are among the acceptable purposes, he noted, but further description is required.

“If the board is going in for a matter involving personnel, the board cannot simply just pass a motion to say we are entering executive session to discuss personnel,” he said. “You need to identify one of the [eight] specific reasons: employment of a public employee or official, dismissal of a public employee or official, discipline, promotion, demotion, compensation, the investigation of charges or complaint.”

Newly elected board member Judith Hempfling asked for more direction about when real estate discussions require executive session deliberation, suggesting that general discussions about property holdings should take place in the open, while those in executive session only involve financial particulars that could affect the outcome of a pending transaction.

Lampe didn’t answer specifically, but reiterated the financial justification for going into executive session when discussing the sale or purchase of real estate.

The attorney also stressed that the stated purpose of an executive session is the only thing that can be discussed.

“There must be diligence to stay on topic,” he said.

And finally, any board decision or vote must take place in an open, public session.

Public records and ethics

With few exceptions, “everything that is given to you is going to be public record,” Lampe told the board. And most district-related communications created by board members or administrators are also public record, he said. The only exceptions are communications with an attorney, student records and executive session records.

“If we’re not going to discuss it in open session, then we’re not going to email about it,” he offered as a rule of thumb. And it doesn’t matter if the board member is using a personal email account, he added.

Board members also must hold themselves to certain ethical standards, Lampe said, citing laws against conflicts of interest, using one’s position to secure anything of value for self or family and talking about confidential matters.

Social media presents a challenge, he said. While board members, like district employees, have First Amendment rights of free speech, they also are subject to restrictions on “speech [that] causes substantial disruption to the academic process,” he said.

Hempfling suggested that the board might engender more openness with the public by taking time at the end of each meeting to decide on some agenda items for the next month, so “we’re doing it in the public eye.”

Turner expressed skepticism about the idea, noting that so much happens over the course of a month that it’s difficult to plan that far ahead.

Newly elected board member Dorothée Bouquet said she felt the challenge for the board is seeking more openness and transparency “in a way that is respectful of the Sunshine Laws and in a way that allows us to be efficient.”

The board’s next regular meeting is Thursday, Feb. 10, beginning at 7 p.m., at Mills Lawn. Its next work session is Monday, Feb. 21, same time and place.

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