Court Holds School District Abided by OMA When it Approved Employee's Separation Agreement
october 12, 2015
In a recent decision, the Circuit Court for the Seventh Judicial Circuit for Sangamon County in Springfield, Illinois held in Bd. of Educ. of Springfield Sch. Dist. 186 v. Attorney Gen. of Illinois & Molly Beck, that a school district that voted to approve a superintendent's Separation Agreement at a board meeting did not violate the Open Meetings Act (OMA).
When the Springfield school superintendent chose to resign from his position at Springfield School District 186, the board met in closed session to discuss a Separation Agreement. Six of the seven board members signed the Separation Agreement.
Subsequently, the board posted its agenda for the next month's meeting on its website. The agenda listed the superintendent's Separation Agreement as one of the items for discussion at the upcoming board meeting and included a link to an electronic copy of the Separation Agreement.
During an open session, the board President advised the members about the superintendent's Separation Agreement. On a public roll call vote, six members voted to approve it and one member voted to oppose it.
After the open session, a news reporter filed a request for review with the Public Access Counselor (PAC). The reporter stated that she believed a violation of the OMA occurred because the board signed the Separation Agreement, which included terms of compensation, without taking a public vote beforehand.
The Attorney General issued a Public Access Opinion and held that the school district violated the OMA. The Attorney General opined the board's action during the first closed session when six out of the seven members signed a Separation Agreement was improper because the members signed it without holding a public vote.
However, the circuit court disagreed and held that the public posting of the Separation Agreement, coupled with the public recitation at the board meeting, satisfied the requirements of the OMA.
Section 120/2(e) of the OMA provides that "[n]o final action may be taken at a closed meeting. Final action shall be preceded by a public recitation of the nature of the matter being considered and other information that will inform the public of the business being conducted." 5 ILCS 120/2(e).
The circuit court held that the Attorney General's findings were clearly erroneous and against the manifest weight of the evidence and held the school district did not violate section 2(e) of the OMA because the board posted the agenda with a link to the Separation Agreement online prior to the public meeting. In addition, the Board President publicly advised the board members about the Separation Agreement and held a vote at the public meeting.
The Attorney General appealed the circuit court's decision, and an oral argument is scheduled for November 5, 2015, in the Illinois Appellate Court, Fourth District. The appellate court's decision will most likely be published at the beginning of 2016. We will let you know what the outcome of this case is in another edition of A Lesson Learned.
The attorneys in Heyl Royster's Education Practice Group are experienced with the Open Meetings Act and can assist school districts and board members with any questions or concerns they might have about complying with the Open Meetings Act.