Common questions about school boards and the Open Meetings Act
Public school boards are public bodies and subject to the Open Meetings Act. This article contains answers to many commonly asked questions.
The shift to online meetings for local governments and public school boards has provided new opportunities for many who had never attended a public meeting before to participate from the comfort of their home by connecting on their computer or phone. As some of these meetings shift back to in-person, many of these new participants have been asking questions about how the Open Meetings Act (OMA) applies to local public school boards.
This article contains a number of questions Michigan State University Extension has been asked about school boards and the Open Meetings Act. The MSU Extension website has many other articles and resources on OMA as well.
- School boards are public bodies and therefore subject to the Open Meetings Act. What does it mean to be a public body, and what is the purpose of the Open Meetings Act?
A public body, as defined by the Open Meetings Act, is a governing body that is empowered by the state constitution, statute, or other means to exercise authority or perform a governmental function, in the case of a school board, that would be to provide authority over school districts.
The primary purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to require public bodies to do their business in public. OMA is an effort towards transparency for public bodies. By requiring deliberations and decisions to take place in public, it gives the public a way to stay informed about how decisions are made. There is also the requirement to allow for public comment, which offers a form of participation, though it is limited. It might be best to say that the Open Meetings Act requires boards to hold meetings IN public, rather than meetings OF the public.
- What does the OMA require for public notice of an upcoming meeting?
For regular meetings, within 10 days after the first meeting of the year, a public notice must be posted stating dates, times, and places of regular meetings. It is typical for boards to post reminders of upcoming meetings, say, a few days before the meeting, but for regularly scheduled meetings, the only legal requirement is that the schedule is posted within 10 days after that first meeting.
If the schedule is changed, a notice must be posted within three days after the change, and if a meeting is rescheduled, or a special meeting is called, it must be posted at least 18 hours before the meeting takes place.
- Does the OMA allow for a School Board to hold a meeting virtually if a local government declares a state of emergency?
Yes, OMA was amended in 2020 to allow public bodies to hold electronic meetings due to a local state of emergency or state of disaster. Electronic meetings must be conducted in a manner that permits two-way communication so that members of the public body can hear and be heard by other members, and so that the public can hear members of the public body and be heard by members and other participants during public comment.
At least 18 hours before an electronic meeting, public notice must be posted including an explanation of why the meeting is virtual, how members of the public can participate, how members of the public can directly contact members of the board, and the agenda must be posted at least two hours before the meeting begins, though the agenda can be amended after that.
- Based on the current orders from the MDHHS, what health & safety protocols need to be implemented for a School Board to hold an in-person meeting?
Public bodies that hold in-person meetings must comply with social distancing and other mitigation measures recommended by the CDC and the various health orders issued by MDHHS related to mask wearing, and a 50% capacity limit of the venue where the meeting is being held.
- What does the OMA require for public comment?
The only requirement is that “A person must be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body.” There is no legal requirement for how long a person must be required to speak, or when during a meeting public comment must take place.
- Under the OMA, are school boards allowed to place constraints or limits on those making public comments?
Yes. School boards and other public bodies may adopt rules imposing individual time limits for members of the public addressing the public body. It’s common for boards to limit each person to a few minutes for public comment.
The board may also decide when in the meeting public comment takes place. Often, this means public comment takes place at the beginning or end of a meeting, sometimes both. There is no requirement that the public be allowed to address the public body during discussions on a particular issue.
- How can members of the public advocate to their local school board for policy changes in regard to how they handle public comments at their meetings?
Members may use their public comment time to advocate for changes, or request meetings with members of the board outside of public meetings, to advocate for rules changes related to public comment. The other option would be to pursue change at the state legislative level.
- Does the OMA require that materials shared or presented to the board during a meeting be made available to the public (ex. posted to the district website)?
The OMA only requires that the agenda and minutes be posted, though it is common practice to make other materials available as well.
- Regarding access to meetings when members of the public cannot be present: Does the OMA require the school board to live stream or broadcast their meetings? Does the OMA require that a meeting be recorded and access to the recording be granted to the public? Does the OMA allow for hybrid for members of the public who want to participate but cannot be physically present?
There is no legal requirement to live stream or broadcast an in-person board meeting. There is no requirement to record or post meeting recordings either. The act states “All meetings of a public body must be open to the public and must be held in a place available to the general public.”
OMA does not comment on hybrid meetings. It doesn’t require them but doesn’t prohibit them either. If a board wanted to hold an in-person meeting, while allowing the option of the public to connect electronically and participate, that would appear to be allowed.
- What does the OMA require in regard to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?
OMA requires that meetings must be held in a place available to the general public, which should mean meetings are accessible. For electronic meetings there are specific requirements that the public meeting notice that is posted must include instructions for how persons with disabilities may participate to enable their participation.
- Why is the meeting format handled differently from one district to another?
OMA sets the baseline requirements for public bodies to conduct meetings in public and allow limited public comment. There’s a wide range of latitude given beyond that, for how different bodies carry out their meetings. As long as the basic requirements of the OMA are met, it’s up to each board to set their own rules beyond that.
- What is the penalty for violating the OMA?
A public official who intentionally violates OMA may be guilty of a misdemeanor and may be personally liable for damages up to $500 for a single meeting. As for a public body as a whole, a decision made by a public body may be invalidated if an OMA violation is found, and the public body would have to adopt the decision again at a public meeting.
For more information on the Open Meetings Act, read the law here, check out the Michigan Attorney General’s Open Meetings Act Handbook, or contact your local MSU Extension Government and Community Vitality team member.