The Missouri Sunshine Law is series of state statutes designed to make sure the state government and its entities conduct business in an open and ethical way. Citizens of Missouri have a right to know what is happening within various governmental bodies. Since public schools are part of the state, school districts are required to comply with these laws. The general rule is that school board meetings, records, votes, discussions, and other official actions taken by the board should be open and made available to the public. However, there is a long list of reasons records and meetings can be closed, some of which we will touch on.
Open School Board Meetings.
A school board is generally required to give 24-hour notice before holding a meeting unless it is impossible or impractical to do so. This notice must contain the time, date and place of the meeting. Some actions, such as increasing a tax or making decisions on land use, require four-day notice. Finally, the notice must include an agenda that informs the public of the topics to be covered at the board meeting. Minutes must be taken at all meetings and must record any votes taken. It’s important to note that while minutes are required to be taken, there is little guidance on what they must contain. Therefore it is common for board minutes to only contain general statements about the topics discussed and the votes taken.
Closed School Board Meetings.
Just like an open meeting, a school board must provide the same notice when they plan a closed session school board meeting. Beyond the general notice rules, they must state the statutory exception justifying a closed session and must limit the discussion to the topic listed as the reason for going into closed session. There are two statutory exceptions that relate to district employees.
Meetings, votes and may be closed when the hiring, firing, disciplining, or promotion of a particular employee contains personal information about the employee. Personal information here refers to any information related to the performance or merit of the employee. Any final action must be made available within seventy-two hours, and the individual involved must be notified before the public. The release must contain how each member voted.
There is also a statutory exception that allows districts to close a meeting when they are discussing individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings or records pertaining to employee or applicants for employment. This provision does not apply to the names, positions, salaries and lengths of service of employees.
Open and Closed Records
Just like open and closed board meetings, the Sunshine Law requires that documents stored and retained by the school board be open to the public and made available unless covered by an exception that allows them to be closed. Examples of public records that need to be made available for everybody include board minutes, financial documents such as budget and expense reports, school board resolutions, and emails to and from school employees pertaining to school business. The two exceptions to close meetings discussed above also apply to closing public documents. This is done to protect the privacy of employees.
The operation of School Boards Generally.
A couple more points to note when thinking about the Sunshine Law and how it relates to school boards. School board members should not be sitting down and conducting official business outside of official board meetings. If four or more board members are present and discuss business, that gathering constitutes a meeting where notice is required. Sunshine Law violations can be addressed in a few different ways, including filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office, filing a school board policy grievance, or speaking with the school directly to try and resolve the situation.
If you have any questions about the Sunshine Law or want to further discuss how to deal with a possible violation, contact the MSTA Legal Services Department at 866-343-6186. For more information on the Sunshine Law, including a FAQ and “Top 10 Things to Know,” you can visit the Missouri Attorney General’s Sunshine Law website.