Private session with school administrators violated meetings law
WEST VIRGINIA–The state Supreme Court of Appeals in mid-May affirmed 5-0 a circuit court decision holding that the Fayette County School Board violated the Open Governmental Proceedings Act when four of its five members met privately with school system administrators the day before voting on the closing and consolidation of three schools.
The board argued that no specific plans had been made for a meeting, no formalities were observed, and no discussion about the upcoming vote transpired. The court ruled, however, that an intent to violate the “Sunshine Act” was not necessary. “A common sense approach is required; one that focuses on the question of whether allowing a governing body to exclude the public from a particular meeting would undermine the act’s fundamental purposes.”
The court observed that a school board’s authority to close and consolidate schools is subject to its legal duties under the act, even if its motives were “as pure as driven snow.” The court rejected the Board’s contention that all informal meetings should be excepted from the Sunshine Act.
Instead, the court listed factors that suggest whether a meeting must be open to the public, including the content of the discussion and degree of planning involved, the number and percentage of the public body present, and the possible effects on decisionmaking of holding the meeting in private.
In affirming the decision, the court noted that four-fifths of the board members were present, along with the three highest ranking administrators; the discussion was on a highly-topical matter of school business; and that the following day, the board voted with minimal discussion to close one school and consolidate two others. (McComas v. Board of Education of Fayette County; Plaintiff’s Counsel: Barry Bruce)