Focus

Under Sunshine Law, Don’t Let It Rain

by Jennifer Norton-Powers

An upset parent is waiting outside your office to discuss his son’s suspension. You're already late for a meeting with the auditors and your school district’s business director.

 

As you glance at your desk, you see several letters, many of which must be answered today and to top it off, you have just hung up with the real estate agent who called you with updated details regarding the property you need to build the new elementary school.

The board meeting is tonight, but new developments in the deal have arisen and the board members need to be aware of them. You type a quick e-mail message to pass on the new information and ask for their opinions. You walk out to meet the parent, schedule an appointment with him for the next day and rush to the meeting.

As you walk down the hall to the business director’s office, you think to yourself, “I’ve got everything under control.” The meeting goes well, discrepancies are corrected and all issues are resolved. Two hours later, as you return to your office, it hits you: You directed your board members to break the state Sunshine Law! Back in your office, you find that five of the seven board members have responded to your message with their opinions and sent copies of their replies to the other members. As your forehead falls into your hands, you think to yourself, "I hope the media doesn't get hold of this."

The Sunshine Law in Missouri is similar to legislation in many states in the way it applies to school boards and other public governmental bodies. It states: “It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.” Public meetings, including meetings conducted by telephone or other electronic means, are to be held at reasonably convenient times and must be accessible to the public.

Closed meetings, records and votes of school boards are permitted when they relate to certain topics listed in the statute. This can include legal actions, leasing or purchase of real estate where public knowledge might adversely affect the amount paid in the transaction, personnel issues and records protected from disclosure by other laws.

Superintendents may use electronic communication to cope with their hectic schedules. E-mail can help provide last-minute information to staff and board members, relay urgent legal issues to appropriate parties and quickly distribute information regarding school emergencies.

Many apparently believe that by deleting their messages they have eliminated evidence of improper correspondence. By doing so, they fail to realize the messages usually are saved on the district's server.

Court Rulings

Court cases from other states involving e-mail have resulted in subpoenas to confiscate an individual’s computer hard-drive and school district computer servers. Administrators and board members also should be aware that personal home computers could be confiscated if they are suspected of containing correspondence concerning school business. It only takes one suspicious citizen to initiate an in-depth and embarrassing investigation of a district's alleged violation of state law.

In Seminole County, Fla., when a school district leader sends an e-mail to a school board member, the administrator also is sending a copy to Mike Barry, an education reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. In December 1995, at the request of the newspaper, the school board agreed to forward all of its e-mail automatically to Barry and his editor. The board president reports that the arrangement is really openness in government because the Florida Sunshine Law gives the press the right to rifle through school board mail, and the legislature clearly included all electronic documents in that law.

In the Missouri case, Colombo v. Buford, an appellate court ruled that school board members did not violate the law when they held a series of one-on-one conversations in person and by telephone to discuss the renewal of the superintendent’s contract. However, the ruling noted that courts are aware that those inclined to violate the open-meeting laws could do so by using the quorum requirement as a shield. If the board then met to ratify publicly that which had already been done in private, the spirit of the sunshine law would be violated.

This case indicates that a series of telephone conversations may violate the Missouri Sunshine Law if a quorum of members discuss a matter of public business. This includes voice mail and e-mail.

These court cases make it essential for superintendents to be familiar with their state’s Sunshine Law and to inform board members and staff of their responsibilities under the law. Yearly reminders and in-service programs could prevent potential disasters.

Jennifer Norton-Powers is principal of the Fifth Street Elementary School, 22 Whispering Oaks Drive, Washington, MO 63090. E-mail: jpowers@washington.k12.mo.us