In Krueger v. Appleton Area School Dist. Bd. of Educ., No. 2015AP231, 2017 WI 70, (Wis. 2017), a parent of a child who attended school in the Appleton Area School District (District) alleged that a school board advisory committee meeting was improperly closed because it was a governmental body subject to Wisconsin’s open meetings law. Reversing the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, the Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that the committee meeting improperly excluded the public from attending.
A parent requested the District create an alternative Communication Arts 1 reading list consisting of ninth grade books without profanity, obscenities, or sexualized material. The School Board’s rules required a curriculum to be reviewed according to the District’s Handbook. This Handbook authorizes the formation of committees and outlines the process of committee formation, curriculum review, and presentations to the Board. Outside of its standard review cycle, the District created a “Communications Arts 1 Materials Review Committee” solely to review the book list for that course. However, the District did not allow the concerned parent to attend committee meetings. Instead, the District told the plaintiff parent that the meetings were not open to the public.
The parent’s lawsuit alleged the School Board had violated Wisconsin’s open meetings law. The open meetings law requires every meeting of a “governmental body” to be preceded by public notice and kept open to the public, except where a statutory exception authorizes a closed meeting (Wis. Stat. § 19.81-19.85). The lower courts held that the advisory committee was not a “governmental body” and concluded that the committee was not subject to the open meetings law. However, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed the lower courts, holding that the committee was a “state or local…committee…created by…rule” and therefore satisfied the statutory provisions of Wis. Stat. § 19.82 (1) as a “governmental body” subject to the open meetings law.
In its decision, the Court discussed the attributes that made the committee a “governmental body:” a defined membership and collective responsibilities conferred by the School District’s rule and the Handbook. The Court emphasized that when a governmental entity provides a rule authorizing the formation of committees and confers upon them the power of collective action, these committees are “created by…rule” under Wis. Stat. § 19.82 (1) and are therefore subject to the open meetings law. Here, the School Board’s rule and the Handbook constitute a “rule” under the statute because they authorize the formation of the committees, and confer power for committees to take collective action and make formal recommendations to the School Board.
In contrast, the lower courts had reasoned that no specific provision of the School Board’s rule and the Handbook created the committee, but that two District administrators created the ad hoc committee. The Supreme Court disagreed, however, citing extensive testimony from school administrators that the legal authority for the committee’s formation and purpose came from the School Board’s rule and the Handbook. The Court noted while the School Board’s rule and the Handbook did not specifically name this particular committee, it “authorized [such] review committees … to exist and to exercise the [School] Board’s delegated authority over curriculum review.”
What This Means to You
If you are in Wisconsin, you should review your school board policies and procedures to see which (if any) of your district’s advisory committees are subject to the State’s open meeting law under this ruling. If you are not in Wisconsin, this ruling does not apply to your district. However, as the school year approaches, it is still worthwhile to take a moment to review and consider: (1) your state’s open meetings law; (2) your district’s committee formation policies; and (3) the interaction of your state’s open meetings law and your district’s committee formation policies.