Part III of the Stock and Leader School Group’s three-part series on How 2020 Court Decisions and Legislative Changes will Affect Policies and Practices.
Virtual Board Meetings and Mistakes to Avoid with the Sunshine Act
COVID-19 has required all of us to approach our routine activities from a different lens, and school board meeting procedures are no exception. With Governor Wolf’s declaration of emergency in the Spring of 2020, and ongoing limitations on the number of people permitted in buildings, School Board meetings shifted from an in-person to a virtual format. As summer approached, and into the Fall of 2020, School Board Directors began to attend the Board Meetings in-person, while – for the most part – the public continued to attend virtually. There has been little guidance on how virtual meetings specifically impact Sunshine Act obligations.
Guidance did arrive in October 2020, when the Court of Common Pleas of Lackawanna County (Court) issued an opinion, Kelly McGrath v. Board of School Directors of the City of Scranton and School District of the City of Scranton, which has a considerable impact on how districts operate virtual school board meetings. In the McGrath case, the School Board advertised that its monthly meeting would be held via a virtual platform and all participants would have the opportunity to participate and watch the meeting via the virtual platform, per the Sunshine Act. Unfortunately, the virtual platform crashed during the meeting cutting off all public participation. The Court held that when a district’s sole advertised method of participating and viewing a meeting is no longer available, the School Board must stop its meeting and reconvene when the public has access to participation, as advertised, once again.
Moving Forward: In the future, when health considerations do not inhibit the ability for the public to attend in person, obligations may revert to what current policies allow should a District continue to livestream Board meetings. Until that time, given the public health concerns relative to the COVID-19 pandemic, with virtual attendance being the only way for most public members to participate, any cut off from a virtual Board meeting platform must end that public meeting until such virtual means operate successfully to allow for full public participation. Practically, Districts will need to review their advertisements and determine back up plans, such as a reschedule date, in the event technology crashes. Furthermore, we advise that District advertisements for all 2021 Board voting and committee meetings be advertised as being held via a virtual platform, given the unclear parameters for public participation during 2021. Please reach out to any of us in the School Law Group to discuss how Districts can remain compliant during this time of virtual Board meetings, and – in particular – the impact of the McGrath case.
- Districts will need to review Board policies 006 and 006.1 to either ensure they do not contain contrary language allowing school boards, by a majority vote, to continue their board meetings if virtual means fail to operate, or suspend such authority for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many Districts may have this language in one or both of the above-referenced policies if they were recently reviewed by our firm, as the McGrath case is the first interpretation of the Sunshine Act that restricts such Board authority.
- Districts will need to review their advertisements and determine back up plans, such as a reschedule date, in the event technology crashes.
- District advertisements for all 2021 Board voting and committee meetings should be advertised as being held via a virtual platform, given the unclear parameters for public participation during 2021.
Please reach out to any of us in the School Law Group to discuss how districts can remain compliant during this time of virtual Board meetings, and – in particular – the impact of the McGrath case.
School Board Email Addresses
On October 29, 2020, Governor Wolf signed into law Act 84. Among other things, Act 84 requires districts to assign each Board Member an email address that is made publicly available on the district website. The email addresses must be available on an easily found public area of each district’s website no later than June 26, 2021. Please reach out to any of us in the School Law Group to discuss how we can assist in complying with this new legislation.