Editor’s note: This letter was issued to the community on Jan. 13.
We would like to provide some factual clarification to community questions regarding the Brown Act and school board communication.
The Brown Act is a “sunshine law,” meaning that the public’s business conducted by their elected officials needs to be conducted in the “light of day” where the public can see it and comment on it. That means that all board meetings are open to the public so the public can see and hear the discussions and rationale of their elected officials while they make their decisions. Prior to 2020, all members of a board had to attend a meeting at a physical location because teleconference meetings had so many restrictions and rules that, in all practicality, they were a violation of the Brown Act. Due to COVID-19 pandemic, we are now allowed to hold our meetings via Zoom until the COVID rules expire.
The public must be notified in a timely manner about when board meetings will be conducted, where they will be conducted, and what topics will be discussed. In practice, this means an agenda is posted 72 hours before a meeting and the only topics the board members can discuss are those that are on the agenda unless something of an emergency nature comes up. “Special” board meetings may be posted 24 hours in advance but must follow all other Brown Act guidelines. Special board meetings are typically called when a time-sensitive issue arises that cannot wait until the next regular meeting.
Lastly, the public must be provided with an opportunity to comment on any topic on the agenda during a public comment period during the meeting. The public can also comment on topics they think are important to the board even if they aren’t on the agenda, but the board is not allowed to discuss those items because the public wasn’t notified of the items in advance of the meeting. One exception to the open meeting rule is that closed session meetings can be held on some confidential topics, such as litigation and personnel matters.
The Brown Act defines what constitutes a meeting and mandates that no more than two board members ever discuss a board topic outside a public meeting. Two board members may discuss school business together, but cannot discuss it with any additional school board members. Similarly, committees may have two board members on them but cannot have three or more. Board members can discuss school matters on a committee just like any two school board members could talk about a school topic outside of the committee. Board members can be together at a conference, other public meetings, during school visits or socially, but they cannot discuss board matters with more than one other board member at those events. In practice, these restrictions prevent school board members from discussing school matters or making decisions outside of a school board meeting where the public can also participate.
The Brown Act becomes more complex when you consider “serial” meetings, “daisy chain” meetings and “hub and spoke” meetings, none of which are permissible because they function to pass on ideas and opinions in a chain of communication. Communication between board members could occur via email, in person in the grocery store, on the phone, via text, in the media or on social media. Therefore, it is a best practice that board members do not discuss any school business amongst themselves except at public school board meetings or between two members at a committee meeting, since it is easy to inadvertently violate Brown Act rules.
The Brown Act was further complicated on Jan. 1, 2021 when AB 992 went into effect. This new law clarifies the Brown Act as it relates to social media, and the rules on social media are more restrictive than with other means of communication. Through most means of communication, two members can discuss school business, but on social media not even two members can discuss together. On social media, the restrictions go beyond what would normally be considered discussion under the Brown Act. If more than one board member discusses, “likes,” “hearts,” shares, etc., a school topic on social media it is a Brown Act violation. A board member who makes comments on social media about school matters and is later followed by another board member, who “likes” a comment on the same topic or even posts a picture of a puppy on the same thread, would be committing a Brown Act violation. If there is a long thread and a board member responds but doesn’t realize that another board member “liked” someone’s comment in that thread (an expression of an opinion on the topic), we have a violation. This makes it very difficult now to be involved in social media about any topic that could ever become part of a school board decision. The bottom line isn’t that board members aren’t answering the community on social media because they don’t want to; rather, their lack of a response is because the legal standard established by AB 992 makes engagement on social media very difficult without creating a Brown Act violation.
In order to be able to address the public, the 9000 section of school board policies and bylaws assign the role of board spokesperson to the school board president and superintendent. Per CUSD bylaws, the spokesperson for the board is either the board president or superintendent. In that roll, the board president and/or superintendent will communicate with the public through letters, websites and media. Board authority rests with the board as a whole and not with individual members. Board members serving multiple terms go through extensive training on the Brown Act and are well versed in how to conduct themselves; all new board members have recently been trained, as well, on the responsibility to the public to not discuss school district matters with other board members except at public school board meetings.
Recently, mention has been made of the Brown Act in regard to the trustee provisional appointment process. We take these community concerns seriously. We discussed the concerns with the presenting attorney during our recent public Brown Act training as well as District legal counsel. A Brown Act violation is not only mathematically impossible with new trustees seated only moments before the appointment process began, but even with two continuing board members, these claims have been found to be without merit by a legal review.
Over the past 4 years, the Brown Act has never been violated. While formal Brown Act violation investigation requests have been filed and investigated in that time, all have been found to be without merit. These investigations cost the District a minimum of $5,000 - $10,000 each and can cost much more. While these funds would be better spent on our students, it is the public’s right to file these complaints. Therefore, the Cloverdale Unified School District strives to always honor the Brown Act.
Every member of this board, new or seasoned, takes the Brown Act very seriously because it builds trust and transparency. The Cloverdale Unified School District Board of Trustees will continue to follow the Brown Act, our adopted board policies and bylaws, Education Code, and all applicable laws. We are committed to holding ourselves to the highest ethical standards and requirements of the laws for governance, and we strive to guard the District budget for our students' needs, rather than paying for legal fees and special elections. It is our goal to maintain the trust of our community through the transparent governance of our schools. We invite all community members to engage with trustees through our board meetings, Coffee Chats, committees, and forums. Trustee email addresses may be found on our website: cloverdale-ca.schoolloop.com/board-of-education.
Preston Addison is the president of the Cloverdale Unified School District Board of Trustees.