Q: Our district is receiving inquiries from parents regarding whether our next regularly scheduled Board of Trustees meeting will be held in person. Our Board meetings are currently being held virtually in accordance with the Governor’s suspension of certain Texas Open Meetings Act requirements, effective March 16, 2020, in response to the novel coronavirus disaster declaration. Is this suspension still in effect?
A: Yes. The Office of the Governor of Texas has granted an additional 30-day extension, effective January 5, 2021, of its initial March 16, 2020, suspension of certain Texas Open Meetings Act requirements. This includes the requirement of a quorum or presiding officer to be physically present at the specified location of a meeting, subject to a few conditions.
Texas Education Code Section 26.007 provides that parents are entitled to complete access to any meeting of the board of trustees of a school district, other than a closed session meeting, and such public meeting must be held within the boundaries of the district, except as required by law, and in compliance with the Texas Open Meetings Act. (emphasis added).
The Texas Open Meetings Act requires every regular, special, or called meeting of a governmental body, defined as a school district board of trustees, to be open to the public. The Texas Attorney General has ruled that an “open meeting” is one that must be both physically accessible to the public and in locations accessible to the public. With the introduction of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Texas, among other states, has taken precautionary measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by reducing face-to-face contact for governmental body open meetings.
On March 13, 2020, Governor Abbott issued a disaster proclamation certifying that COVID-19 poses an imminent threat of disaster for all counties of this state and suspending, in part, any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business that would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the pandemic. On March 16, 2020, in response to a request by the Texas Attorney General, the Governor granted the temporary suspension of certain open-meeting provisions of Texas law, primarily suspending requirements related to officials and members of the public having to be physically present at a specified location. This allowed for telephonic or videoconference meetings of the board of trustees of a school district. The suspension was renewed by the Governor effective January 5, 2021, for an additional 30-day period.
School districts wishing to hold either a telephonic or videoconference board of trustees meeting, in accordance with the suspension, must still ensure that: (1) the requisite notice of a telephonic or videoconference meeting complies with existing law on meeting notices and must include a toll-free dial-in number or a free-of-charge videoconference link that provides two-way communication for members of the public to both hear the meetings and address the board of trustees; (2) an electronic copy of the agenda packet is posted with the agenda to allow members of the public to follow along with the telephonic or videoconference meeting, if the district prepares an agenda packet that would have been publicly circulated in hard copy at a face-to-face meeting; and (3) the public is provided access to a recording of any telephonic or videoconference meeting held.
As an important reminder, other requirements of the Texas Open Meetings Act remain in place and in full effect. A listing of those specific, suspended provisions may be found here. A school district’s violation of the TOMA, outside of these specific, suspended provisions, may carry the potential penalty of invalidation of an action taken by the school district’s board of trustees by a court of law, criminal penalties, and civil liabilities.
For specific questions or additional information regarding the Texas Open Meetings Act and official suspension extensions, please consult with your local school law attorney.