Closed Session Discussion of a New School Violated OMA

The Illinois Public Access Counselor (PAC) issued a binding opinion finding that a school board’s closed session discussions violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA) when it improperly had an expansive discussion about the building of a new school during closed session meetings, using the exception for “purchasing or leasing real property.” An announcement from the school board indicated that it was considering the construction of a new school building using COVID-19 relief funds. However, no agenda items or open session minutes of past board meetings indicated that the school board had discussed building a new school. A member of the public filed a Request for Review with the PAC upon the belief that the school board may have discussed the new school during closed session when the school board discussed purchasing or leasing real property.

OMA requires all meetings of public bodies be open to the public unless the subject of the meeting falls under a specific exception. Section 2(c)(5) of OMA permits a school board to enter into closed session to discuss “the purchase or lease of real property for the use of the public body.” The PAC reviewed the school board’s closed session minutes and verbatim recordings from 16 meetings between October 2021 and June 2022. While the school board argued that it discussed possible real estate sites that could be acquired to build the new school, the PAC found that the board also discussed whether to build a new school, using COVID-19 aid funding for the school, and pursuing a legislative waiver from referendum requirements. . The PAC found that the board could have properly deliberated in closed session about acquiring the most beneficial parcel of real property, but that the Board’s discussions about opening a new school, COVID-19 funding, and pursuit of legislation were outside the scope of the cited closed session exception.

This opinion demonstrates the need to carefully distinguish between discussions about purchasing or leasing property and discussions that may be connected with such real estate decisions, but do not relate directly to the lease or purchase of real property. It also serves as a reminder that closed session exceptions are construed narrowly.