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Wisconsin Supreme Court Addresses Application of Open Meetings Law to School District Committees

July 12, 2017 – On June 29, 2017, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an important Open Meetings Law decision in State of Wisconsin ex rel. Krueger v. Appleton Area School Dist. Bd. of Ed., 2017 WI 70.  This decision focuses on a significant question that school districts face when bringing together groups of employees and others to assist the district in conducting its business:  Is a meeting of these types of groups subject to the Open Meetings Law?

The Decision

The Appleton Area School District Board of Education (the “Board”) had a rule which delegated the selection of the District’s educational materials to District personnel. In addition, the Board’s rule stated the process for revising, adopting, and implementing curriculum should follow the Board-approved curriculum and instruction handbook (the “Handbook”). According to the Handbook, the curriculum of each course was supposed to undergo a full review every 6 years by committees consisting of at least 17 members. The committees were charged with reviewing existing materials, reviewing new potential resources, and making curriculum recommendations to the Board.

A parent asked the District to create an alternative communications arts course with a different book list than the existing course. In response, the District established the Communications Arts 1 Materials Review Committee (“CAMRC”) to review the existing book list for the course. In establishing CAMRC, the District generally followed the process outlined in the Handbook, except that CAMRC would review only the book list for the course rather than a full review of the curriculum. Ultimately, CAMRC recommended a book list to the Board, which the Board approved.

The parent who originally requested the revised book list asked to attend CAMRC meetings, but was denied. The parent was told the meetings were closed to the public and were not subject to the Open Meetings Law. The parent sued the District and CAMRC for violating the Open Meetings Law. The Circuit Court and the Court of Appeals ruled against the parent. On appeal, the issue before the Wisconsin Supreme Court was whether CAMRC was a “governmental body” subject to the Open Meetings Law.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court found CAMRC was a “governmental body” subject to the Open Meetings Law. In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court determined application of the Open Meetings Law does not depend on the purpose for which the body is meeting or the subject of the meetings. Rather, application of the Open Meetings Law depends on two factors: (1) the form of the body; and (2) the source of its existence.

As to first factor, the body must be a “state or local agency, board, commission, committee, council, department or public body corporate and politic” with a defined membership. Regarding the second factor, the body must be “created by constitution, statute, ordinance, rule or order” that confers “responsibilities, authority, power or duties” on the body collectively. Importantly, the Supreme Court clarified that ad hoc, loosely organized meetings between government employees do not constitute a meeting of a “governmental body” for purposes of the Open Meeting Law.

Applying the above factors, CAMRC met the form requirement as it was a “committee” with a defined membership of no less than 17 individuals. Under the Handbook, the CAMRC members had authority (i.e., to select the materials recommended to the Board) as a group which none of the members had individually and CAMRC met to carry out its authority. The fact that CAMRC called itself a “committee,” kept minutes, and recorded attendance and votes further supported the conclusion that CAMRC satisfied the form requirement.

CAMRC also met second factor. According to the Supreme Court, CAMRC was created by “rule.” Prior to this decision, the term “rule” as used in the Open Meetings Law had not been defined.  Notably, the Supreme Court adopted the definition of “rule” from the American Heritage Dictionary 1577 (3rd ed. 1992) as “any authoritative, prescribed direction for conduct, such as the regulations governing procedure in a governmental body.”  CAMRC was created by “rule” through the Board rule regarding curriculum and the Handbook. Those two measures constituted a rule because they explicitly set forth the process District employees were expected to follow when reviewing educational materials and authorized the creation of committees for that purpose. While the District did not strictly follow the Handbook in selecting the members of CAMRC and the committee did not complete a full curriculum review as outlined in the Handbook, the District relied on the Handbook in forming CAMRC and CAMRC derived its authority from the Handbook. Thus, CAMRC met both factors required to be a “governmental body” subject to the Open Meetings Law.

Takeaways

Based on the Court’s ruling, districts should review whether committees comprised of school district employees and others are subject to the Open Meetings Law.  Specifically, districts should analyze the following factors to determine whether these district committees are governmental bodies:

  1. Does the committee have a defined membership or is it a loosely organized gathering of District employees that meets to discuss implementation of policies or the performance of their day-to-day job duties?
  2. Do individual members of the group have authority to carry out the duties and responsibilities delegated to the group or must the group act collectively?
  3. Was the committee created by rule or order of the Board or by the district’s administration?

In addition to reviewing the application of the Open Meetings Law to existing school district committees, school district may want to consider adopting formal rules or orders for creating committees in the future to determine at the outset whether the committee is a governmental body governed by the Open Meetings Law.  This would provide clarity for the district, the committee and the public.

If you have any questions, please contact Mary Hubacher at mhubacher@buelowvetter.com or 262-364-0254, Joel Aziere at jaziere@buelowvetter.com or 262-364-0250, Brett Schnepper at bschnepper@buelowvetter.com or 262-364-0262, or your Buelow Vetter Attorney.

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