The entire Brown Act now comprises a small book. In this space I am only going to cover some key provisions that govern the manner in which a school board must operate.
Therefore, if I wish to discuss something with a fellow member, my first question must be, “Have you discussed this topic with any other member?” If the answer is “yes,” then I must simply say “thank you and goodbye.” This also applies to email. If I were to forward an email I had received that included a comment on a school-related topic to another member, I would then have created what is called a serial meeting, and that would be the same kind of violation. I actually keep a list of topics and which board member, if any, I have shared my thoughts.
Occasionally, as President of the Board, I have needed to send out a brief piece of information so that no one is blind-sided by something that may have come up. I can either do this directly or by sending the item to the Superintendent to send to Board Members. What is prohibited is any response or ensuing dialogue on the item.
Therefore, a smart board will have one or two annual workshops to discussion such things as mission and purpose, shared values and vision for the District, and board protocols. And while members of the public seldom attend these more informal sessions, they are placed on agenda and are open to all.
Passed by the CA State Legislature in 1953, the Act’s purpose was to guarantee the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. It applies to only to city and county government agencies, boards, and councils.
Does this make it difficult for the Board to function as a team? In some respects, yes. I can’t say to the other four informally in the hallway, “Gee, does anyone here have any interest in taking a look at “X” at one of our future meetings?” Even floating an idea must be done in public during the advance planning portion of the meeting. And although a board that has spent at least a year deliberating on various matters will come to have a sense of its shared values, that is a torturous path to mutual understanding.
Also, while items involving legal rights to privacy are discussed in closed session (personnel matters and student disciplinary actions, for example), any action taken must be reported out in open session. In the case of an expulsion, this is done by a reference number related to the case, not by name.
The public is not only allowed, but encouraged, to comment during board meetings on items that may or may not be on the agenda. If the item is not on the agenda, the board listens carefully to any request or criticism, but may not comment on the matter until a subsequent meeting when it has been placed on agenda. This can be difficult for us, especially if the speaker may have been misinformed or is in possession of only partial information. Still, no response can be made if the item is not on the agenda. I think there are times when this restriction makes us appear cold or uncaring, and that is painful.
Still, when all is said and done, there is no question that this piece of legislation has ensured necessary openness in the conduct of the public’s business.
Many people are surprised to learn that a board member may only discuss a topic related to school matters with one other member of the board when not at a public meeting. Including a third member would constitute a quorum of our five-member board, and all such meetings must be conducted in public with all topics to be discussed published in the agenda at least 72 hours in advance.