School Board Did Not Violate OMA By Signing Separation Agreement During Closed Session Because of Subsequent Approval During Open Session

The Illinois Appellate Court, reversing two binding opinions of the Attorney General, found  that the Board  of Education of Springfield School District did not violate the Open Meetings Act (“OMA”) in its approval of a separation agreement with the district’s superintendent.

In Board of Education of Springfield School District No. 186 v. The Attorney General of Illinois, 2015 IL App (4th) 140941, the appellate court found that the board did not violate the OMA by signing the separation agreement in closed session because that did not constitute a final action.

Rather, the court found final action occurred when the board voted to approve the separation agreement during the open session of a subsequent board meeting. Further, the board did not violate the OMA by failing to adequately inform the public of the separation agreement, despite failing to provide details about the agreement during the board meeting, because a copy of the agreement was posted on the district’s website prior to final action being taken.

At its February 4, 2013, meeting, the board entered closed session and six of seven board members signed a separation agreement with the district’s superintendent. The board took no further action to approve the separation agreement during an open session of that board meeting.

Then at the March 5, 2013, board meeting, the board approved the separation agreement by a six-to-one vote during open session. Four days prior to the March 5, 2013, board meeting, the agenda for the meeting was posted on the district’s website. The agenda listed the approval of the separation agreement as a roll call item and provided a link to a copy of the separation agreement.

In two separate binding opinions, the Attorney General found that the board violated OMA by signing the agreement during closed session in violation of Section 2(e) of OMA, and by failing to adequately inform the public of the nature of the agreement, as required by Section 2(e) of OMA. The trial court reversed both binding opinions and found in favor of the board.

The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the board did not violate OMA by signing the separation agreement during closed session at the February 4, 2013, meeting. While Section 2(e) of OMA provides that “no final action may be taken at a closed meeting,” the court interpreted this language to mean that applying board member signatures during closed session could not, and did not, constitute a final action.

Instead, the final action to approve the separation agreement occurred when the board voted during the open session of the March 5, 2013, board meeting.

Moreover, it was proper to consider the separation agreement during closed session of the February 5, 2013, board meeting because it concerned “the appointment, employment, compensation, discipline, or dismissal of specific employees,” in accordance with Section 2(c)(1) of OMA.

The appellate court also affirmed the trial court’s decision that the board adequately informed the public of the separation agreement prior to taking final action to approve it. The Attorney General argued that the board “considered the agreement to be in effect” prior to the March 5, 2013, action and, therefore, the board did not adequately inform the public of the separation agreement prior to the time the board believed the agreement to be in effect.

The appellate court rejected this argument because a board’s subjective belief is irrelevant. The Attorney General also argued that the public was not given details about the separation agreement at the March 5, 2013, meeting.

However, because the district posted the agenda four days before taking final action on the separation agreement, which listed the approval of the separation agreement as a roll call item and provided a link to a copy of the entire agreement, the board met its obligation to adequately inform the public prior to taking action on the separation agreement.  

Open Meetings Act compliance is critical to successful management of school board meetings and often give rise to litigation when not managed properly.  Contact Heather Brickman or Steve Richart with your OMA inquiries.

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