Charter schools win teleconferencing exception to open meetings

Charter schools are getting a special carve out in this legislative session with a teleconferencing exception to open meetings law that allows their board members to meet via teleconference, videoconference or other electronic means without having a physical quorum in one location.

Charter schools that operate in Tennessee are subject to the state’s sunshine laws, meaning their governing bodies must publish notice of upcoming meetings, hold open meetings in which the public can attend and follow all other requirements of the Open Meetings Act.

But the new law would give charter school boards the extra ability to meet via teleconference, videoconference or other electronic means as long as they provide a physical place for the public to attend and hear the proceedings. The bill has passed the Senate and the House.

Most governing bodies in Tennessee are not allowed to have members participate by teleconference or other electronic means. The ones that are allowed are specified under the Open Meetings Act section “Participation by electronic or other means,” T.C.A 8-44-108. They include “boards, agencies and commissions of state government, including state debt issuers as defined in this section and municipal governing bodies.” (The only municipal body allowed through the definition is that of the city of Belle Meade.)

But even those governing bodies whose members are allowed electronic means participation must follow strict guidelines. The law requires a physical quorum of members at one location. Or if a quorum is not present at the meeting’s location, the board must make a determination of necessity and file with the secretary of state no fewer than two days after the meeting.

Charter schools just won an exception to the requirement of a quorum in one location, the necessity determination and any filing with the secretary of state. In other words, charter school boards could theoretically regularly hold meetings in which all of its members participate by teleconference, as long as they follow the other rules of the state’s sunshine laws that make that meeting available to the public.

When explaining the legislation (S.B. 2491)  before the Senate Education Committee, its sponsor state Sen. Steven Dickerson, R-Nashville, said the bill recognizes the unique nature of governing boards for national charter management organizations and encourages an environment that allows such organizations to expand into Tennessee.

The House version (H.B. 2331) was carried by state Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville.

Charter schools governing bodies still would be required to comply with other parts of the law concerning members’ electronic participation in a public meeting, as stated here in this excerpt of T.C.A 88-44-108 (c) (1-5):

(c) (1) Any meeting held pursuant to the terms of this section shall comply with the
requirements of the Open Meetings Law, codified in this part, and shall not circumvent the spirit or requirements of that law.

(2) Notices required by the Open Meetings Law, or any other notice required by law, shall state
that the meeting will be conducted permitting participation by electronic or other means of
communication.

(3) Each part of a meeting required to be open to the public shall be audible to the public at the
location specified in the notice of the meeting as the location of the meeting. Each member
participating electronically or otherwise must be able to simultaneously hear each other and
speak to each other during the meeting. Any member participating in such fashion shall identify
the persons present in the location from which the member is participating.

(4) Any member of a governing body not physically present at a meeting shall be provided,
before the meeting, with any documents that will be discussed at the meeting, with substantially the same content as those documents actually presented.

(5) All votes taken during a meeting held pursuant to the terms of this section shall be by roll
call vote.

-Written by Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan alliance of citizens, media and good government groups promoting transparency in government through education and research. She can be reached at fisher@tcog.info or (615) 602-4080.

What do you think?